Why is Biden picking a fight with Saudi Arabia?

The U.S. administration has so far made little effort to justify its swerve toward Iran and away from its allies.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. President Joe Biden. Source: U.S. State Department/Joe Biden via Facebook.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. President Joe Biden. Source: U.S. State Department/Joe Biden via Facebook.
James Sinkinson
James Sinkinson
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.

Upheavals in the Middle East over the past decade have challenged U.S. leaders to find new regional strategies and shift American alliances. Some recent realignments, however, seem to threaten both U.S. interests and regional peace.

The beginning and end of the Arab Spring, the rise and fall of Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, conflicts in Yemen and Libya, and ongoing efforts by the Islamic Republic of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons capability—all have upended traditional U.S. diplomatic assumptions.

No surprise that previous administrations have embraced very different approaches to the region, including which nations and leaders to keep close and which to hold at arm’s length.

Former President Barack Obama’s first visit to the region was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey—even as the Turkish leader tightened his iron grip on his nation—followed by a trip to Iraq, Saudi Arabia and then Egypt. That’s when Obama delivered his ill-fated speech at Cairo University, which offended Israel and its many friends and delighted extremists throughout the region. 

Obama’s team also engineered the failed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—aka the Iran nuclear deal—which emboldened the extremist Shi’ite nation to expand its colonialist aggression in the region and further export its extremist ideology.

By contrast, former President Donald Trump’s first trip to the region included both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and these two nations became the pivots of his regional policy. This strategy—based on the understanding in the United States and many Gulf Arab states that Iran is a common enemy—led to unprecedented regional normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab Sunni nations, known as the Abraham Accords.

President Biden has seemingly returned to the Obama vision—despite its scant success. He is now distancing himself from allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia while extending a friendly hand to Iran, even as the Islamic Republic attacks U.S. personnel, American interests and our friends and allies. 

A prime example is the recent decision by the Biden administration to publish the intelligence report on Jamal Khashoggi’s death in late 2018 and place sanctions on some Saudis involved. While the journalist’s murder was certainly an onerous act—and had to be condemned, as it was at the time—the timing of the diplomatic slap in the face was not coincidental, and its ulterior meaning was a message that the Saudis had to be kept at arm’s length.

Whatever else we may say about Saudi Arabia, it has been a good ally of the United States. Saudi Arabia’s economic, religious and political weight in the Arab world and globally is a critical asset to any U.S. administration seeking to block Iranian advances and reduce Chinese and Russian involvement in the region. 

The Saudis welcomed U.S. troops during the First Gulf War and helped battle ISIS. They play an important role in the American economy and serve as a locus for regional pragmatism. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has played a vital role in ending the Arab-Israeli conflict by giving its tacit blessing to the Abraham Accords and allowing Israeli flyover rights over its territory. 

While Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is certainly open to scrutiny, it is no worse than that of many others in the region to which the Biden administration is warming. Last year, Turkey imprisoned 37 journalists, as it continues to stifle open debate and the free press. Egypt imprisoned 27 and Iran 15. 

On the other hand, while far from a liberal democracy, Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has launched a series of social and economic reforms aimed at modernizing the conservative kingdom in recent years.

While the Biden administration appears to be interested in rejoining the JCPOA, Iran continues to be the most malign influence across the region. It has proxies involved in wars, conflicts and massacres across the Middle East, whether in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives as a result of actions connected to the Ayatollah regime. Furthermore, earlier in the month, three people were killed after a base hosting U.S. and U.K. troops in Iraq was hit by a rocket attack launched by Iranian-backed militias. In January, another attack left more than 100 American soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injuries.

That Iran is directly involved in attacks on Americans and against American interests around the region has not affected President Biden’s appetite to sit and negotiate with it. Unfortunately, the new president is surrounded by people who negotiated the JCPOA and feel ideologically beholden to it. These same advisers know that the nuclear agreement’s greatest adversaries are Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of whom are direly threatened by Iran’s bellicose behavior. 

Ironically—and tragically—distancing the United States from its two strongest allies in the region and discrediting them appears to be the way back into an agreement that provides Iran with a path to a nuclear weapon in exchange for few discernable benefits. Indeed, the Biden administration has made little effort to justify its shift to a new Iran agreement and its swerve away from its allies.

Diplomacy is about securing national interests. It is in the interests of the United States to distance itself from Iran, which costs us so much blood and suffering in the region and continues to refer to us as the “Big Satan” and chant “Death to America” regularly at official state rallies. 

On the other hand, while Saudi Arabia is no bastion of democracy or human rights, it invariably comes down on the side of the United States. Time and again and has shown it can be an important force for peace in the region.

The threatening message by the Biden administration to Saudi Arabia is also harmful to Israel’s interests. The two Middle East nations stand together as part of a new moderate pillar in the region. Toward the end of the Trump administration, it was variously assessed that open diplomatic relations between the two burgeoning allies would be forthcoming. 

Now it seems the forces towards greater peace will be stymied in the near future because the Biden administration is trying to placate its progressive wing. The left, of course, sees appeasement of Iran as the pinnacle of foreign policy, while its opponents in Jerusalem and Riyadh receive the cold shoulder.

James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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