A month after taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has decided to stop sitting on the sidelines in the Middle East.
However, it is not Iran—the aggressive force seeking to destabilize the region—that Washington has it its sights, but longtime U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, which has been dealt one blow after another in recent weeks.
First, the Americans removed Yemen’s Houthi rebels from the list of terrorist organizations, despite the fact that the Houthis—an Iranian proxy on a par with Hezbollah in Lebanon—are waging a war of attrition against Saudi Arabia and could very well turn their Iranian weapons against Israel, as well.
Now, in what seems to be adding insult to injury, a U.S. intelligence report has determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the royal family, in 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, citing the crown prince’s control of decision-making in Gulf kingdom.
While the Biden administration did not penalize the crown prince personally, it did impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudis “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”
In the Middle East, the American measures are interpreted as a renunciation of the royal family. This is not too far off from the policy the United States adopted vis-à-vis the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s, thereby contributing to the fall of his regime and the rise of the ayatollahs.
One hopes that the Saudi royal family would rise to the challenge and not repeat the mistake of the Shah, who relied on the United States to help him in time of need.
Biden administration officials may be trying to come off like a group of boy scouts, but must understand that the moral high ground cannot replace foreign policy or substitute for state interests.
The illusion of being able to “fix” the Middle East collapsed miserably a decade ago, and the Arab Spring, for which the Americans had high hopes, had calamitous implications.
Moreover, the United States must also consider the alternatives: Do they choose Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally, and try to get it to redeem its ways through a secret and poignant dialogue; or do they choose Iran, the sworn enemy of all that America stands for.
The Saudis most likely eliminated a dissident journalist—many regimes have done the same, be they allies or foes of the United States, which itself has some similar incidents in the past.
The only mistake the Saudis made was getting caught by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—a champion of democracy if ever there was one.
Those seeking the United States’ friendship must understand the sensitivities of the administration, which pays great attention to media and public opinions. But when this administration sets about to “right the world” by “destroying the old world,” it must understand that its actions have consequences.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.