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Biden Just Tore Up Trump's Blank Check to Saudi Arabia | Opinion

Newsweek logo Newsweek 27/01/2021 Daniel R. DePetris
Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie: Former vice president Joe Biden speaks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on November 1, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. © Scott Olson/Getty Former vice president Joe Biden speaks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on November 1, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.

Тhe Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is used to getting the benefit of the doubt in Washington, D.C. By virtue of its heft in the global oil market and its 75-year strategic relationship with the United States, the oil-rich monarchy has traditionally been granted a lot of slack in U.S. foreign policy circles. The al-Saud royal family to this very day is generally viewed as a U.S. security partner, albeit a prickly one whose human rights record and export of Wahhabism left much to be desired.

Joe Biden, however, has always been a skeptic of the Saudi monarchy. From as far back as the 1980's, then-Sen. Biden counseled his colleagues to open their eyes and stop pretending Riyadh was a magic-bullet to the Middle East's innumerable problems. After the 9/11 attacks, in which 19 hijackers (15 of whom were Saudi citizens) conducted the worst act of terrorism on American soil, Biden was quick to excoriate Saudi Arabia for turning a blind eye to extremism within its own population. "I do not doubt the pressure that the Saudis are under, like other Arab states in the region, having to essentially buy off their extreme groups in order to maintain themselves," Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations about five weeks after the attacks. "But the Saudis have gone above and beyond the call in destabilizing the region." Biden's position only hardened three years later, when he told PBS that Washington wasn't getting anything out of the U.S.-Saudi relationship: "We're the reason why this oligarchy exists."

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In Biden's eyes, the emergence of the young Mohammed Bin Salman as the de-facto head of the Saudi royal family has elevated these issues to the surface. During the 2020 campaign, Biden excoriated the Saudi monarchy for its long list of missteps and misdeeds over the previous five years, chief among them the premeditated murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden blasted Saudi Arabia as a "pariah" during the Democratic primary, promising to "end the sale of material to the Saudis where they're going in and murdering children." This of course was a reference to the war in Yemen, a six-year slog between the Saudi-led military coalition and the Houthis which has resulted in at least 100,000 dead, a catalogue of war crimes as far as the eye can see, and a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions. That Washington across two U.S. administrations thought it wise to support Riyadh militarily and diplomatically in this war makes Yemen's tragedy even more despicable.

While Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan insists the U.S.-Saudi relationship will remain positive regardless of the change in Washington, the monarchy is clearly nervous. It's no coincidence that Saudi officials have taken a series of small steps over the last several weeks to get on the Biden administration's good side, steps that include shortening the sentences of political activists and stripping some of the most disgusting phrases from Saudi textbooks.

Biden has promised a full reassessment of U.S.-Saudi relations. His top national security officials haven't done anything to dispel it. Avril Haines, the newly-installed Director of National Intelligence, committed to declassifying the U.S. intelligence community's assessment of who ordered the killing of Khashoggi (the CIA has already assessed with high confidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was ultimately responsible). Secretary of State Antony Blinken was just as emphatic during his confirmation hearing last week about the need for a whole-hearted review of a relationship all too frequently thought of as untouchable. And the president is getting straight to work on the reassessment, blocking all pending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE until his team thoroughly reviews them."

The question is not whether a reassessment is in order, but rather what principles should guide that assessment. On this, the Biden administration officials ought to keep three things in mind.

One, U.S. national security interests are not identical to Saudi national interests and indeed are more likely to diverge than converge. For the U.S., the Middle East is a conflict-prone region jam-packed with authoritarian, oftentimes incompetent governments more likely to create additional problems than solutions. As a core player in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia obviously sees the region differently and would love nothing more than to enlist the United States into fighting its own battles.

Two, the U.S.-Saudi relationship in general is far less vital to U.S. national security today than it was during the Cold War or at the beginning of the century. There was a time in the not-to-distant past when U.S. industry was addicted to Persian Gulf oil and protecting Saudi Arabia's oil resources from the Soviet Union was a top U.S. security priority in the Middle East. This is no longer the case; the Soviet Union is long gone, modern-day Russia hardly sizes up in terms of power and influence, and the U.S. is no longer as dependent on Persian Gulf oil as it once was (U.S. imports of Persian Gulf crude have decreased 67 percent since 2001).

Third, and perhaps most important to keep in mind, Saudi Arabia needs the United States more than the United States needs Saudi Arabia. This is an observation Biden himself made back in 2001, and if anything, his comments have only strengthened over time. If you don't believe me, just take a gander at Riyadh's military campaign in Yemen—a campaign Riyadh would not be able to continue if Washington stopped selling the spare parts, training packages, and munitions that keep Saudi pilots in the air.

Throwing the U.S.-Saudi relationship completely overboard would be a mistake. To the extent Washington and Riyadh can work on mutual security interests like keeping Al-Qaeda down and maintaining a stable oil market, the Biden administration should not hesitate to cooperate.

But the blank-checks and special privileges the United States has granted the kingdom for decades on end is over.

Daniel DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, a contributor to the National Interest and a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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