Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s emergence as president-elect following the November 3 U.S. presidential election presents a number of implications for the relationship between the United States and Gulf Arab countries. One of the most immediate and difficult of the likely challenges will be Washington’s relations with Riyadh under a Democratic administration. An indication of these challenges is clear from several comments by Biden and his senior campaign advisors as well as other leading Democrats in recent months: Biden has said some Saudi leaders should be treated as “pariahs” and has vowed to curtail U.S. support for Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen. This would be a significant break with the policies of the administration of President Donald J. Trump, which emphasized strong and personalized relations between the president and his family and the Saudi royal family, strong commercial and energy ties and military contracts between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and steady U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war, particularly through weapons sales.
Democratic Party Grievances
U.S.-Saudi relations have remained strong since the 1940s, despite repeated periods of strain. But during the Trump era, they became a partisan issue in the United States, as a series of substantial grievances created an unprecedented crisis in confidence between the Saudi government and many Democrats. The reciprocal bear hug between Trump and the Saudi government at the beginning of 2017, marked by a high-profile maiden international voyage by the new president to Saudi Arabia, ignited suspicions about the relationship among Democrats.
As the principal opposition party, Democrats criticized Trump’s attack on multilateralism, fixed alliances, and existing trade and arms control agreements. They targeted Saudi Arabia and, to a much lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates, suggesting they were questionable U.S. allies, and they became proxy targets for the Trump administration’s international approach.
The most substantial criticism of Trump’s international policies by Democrats concerned the Yemen war and the administration’s resistance to efforts to limit or prevent any form of U.S. support for the Saudi war against the Houthi rebels. Though the administration of former President Barack Obama had also supported Saudi military engagement in Yemen, the humanitarian crisis greatly intensified and the de facto stalemate in the conflict in northern Yemen became far more evident during the first half of the Trump administration.
The killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 outraged Democrats and Republicans in Congress. When the Trump administration, especially the president, responded by consistently downplaying and dismissing the killing, it greatly added fuel to the Democratic fire against Saudi Arabia and the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It also helped significantly alienate internationalist Republicans in the Senate, such as Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio. After Khashoggi’s death, Congress became more serious about legislating limitations on U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict, including through weapons sales. That reached a crescendo with the first effort by Congress to prohibit U.S. engagement in a conflict via the War Powers Resolution, which received bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress but was vetoed by Trump in April 2019 and therefore did not take effect.
In addition, critics of the U.S.-Saudi relationship under Trump, particularly Democrats, expressed grave concerns about the political crackdown in Saudi Arabia, especially the jailing and alleged abuse of women’s rights activists, such as Loujain al-Hathloul, and writers, such as Raif Badawi. They have also complained about Saudi surveillance of and pressure on government critics living in the United States and Canada and efforts to coerce them into returning to the kingdom to face an uncertain future. An additional source of tension emerged from accusations, which have been supported by the FBI, that Saudi diplomats in the United States helped Saudi nationals flee U.S. jurisdiction to avoid trials on serious criminal charges. Many Democrats also blame Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for being principal instigators against the nuclear agreement with Iran, suggesting they have attempted to drag the United States into a war with Iran on their behalf.
These grievances helped to fuel a narrative among Democrats during the Trump presidency that recast long-standing bipartisan support for the partnership between Washington and Riyadh as a specifically Republican policy orientation. In its more extreme forms, this narrative viewed the U.S.-Saudi partnership as a blunder attributable to Trump personally and his son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, who had reportedly developed close relations with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Many Democrats simultaneously developed a narrative about the Obama administration policies toward the Gulf that deemed outreach to Iran and relative distance from Gulf Arab monarchies as their party’s characteristic approach. While largely fictional, this account harmonized well with perspectives viewing the 80-year-old U.S.-Saudi partnership as a wrongheaded, and possibly corrupt, innovation by the Trump administration.
Many Saudis also misread Obama-era policies as not only solicitous of Iran at the expense of long-standing Arab friends but also as sympathetic to or supportive of Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups in post-dictatorship Arab republics. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined in a policy-defining speech on November 11, 2011 that the Obama administration was willing to regard Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties as legitimate participants in the Arab political scene, particularly in newly emerging democracies, but only insofar as they met certain conditions and respected basic democratic norms. Yet once the Obama administration had effectively abandoned support for Egypt’s strongman president and long-standing U.S. ally, the perception began to take hold, particularly in the Gulf, that Washington had decided to effectively support Muslim Brotherhood rule in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Saudi media and others have been openly fretting that a Biden administration could mean a return to such a policy.
In addition, most Gulf Arab countries felt excluded from the nuclear negotiations with Iran and were skeptical of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. They feared that the renewed U.S.-Iranian dialogue would come at their expense, with the unlikely outcome that Washington could abandon Gulf countries to form a regional security arrangement in partnership with Iran. However, Iran’s increasingly belligerent actions and support for regional proxies confirmed that a Washington-Tehran partnership in the Gulf region is practically inconceivable. However, the sense that the Obama administration was unreliable and had failed to give due weight to fundamental Saudi security considerations in this major policy shift toward Iran persisted.
The willingness of the Trump administration to walk away from the JCPOA and impose harsh sanctions against Iran in its “maximum pressure” campaign is a major reason for the Saudi government’s close relations with the Trump White House. Conversely, there are now fears among Saudi leaders that Biden could return to a policy that they felt shortchanged the value of their contributions over many decades to the partnership and threatened their core national security concerns.
A Biden administration would be likely to prioritize efforts to resuscitate the dialogue with Iran, probably under the broad rubric of revitalizing the JCPOA (although that would require negotiations for a new agreement). So, there is potential for renewed tensions if the administration is perceived as making overtures toward Iran again at the Saudi expense, or if Democrats conclude that Saudi Arabia, perhaps along with Israel, has actively impeded efforts to resurrect constructive U.S.-Iranian diplomatic engagement.
The reputation of Mohammed bin Salman is badly tainted in the eyes of many U.S. officials, particularly Democrats, especially because of the Khashoggi killing. Yet, Saudi Arabia needs a partnership with a major global power to secure its interests and only the United States is in a position to play such a role.
The Saudi government will effectively have three potential approaches to repair this rift: quietly implement a series of modest measures to address existing grievances and hope this is sufficient; make a major overture toward U.S. interests while making it clear that assuaging U.S. concerns was a significant factor in a dramatic and risky policy change; do little or nothing and adopt a take it or leave it attitude and hope for the best.
One option for Saudi leaders would be to begin a quiet dialogue with the Biden administration and senior internationalist Republican leaders in the Senate to address many of the grievances about Saudi conduct without a major policy shift. Saudi Arabia could release women’s rights activists and other prisoners of conscience whose imprisonment doesn’t actually enhance Saudi national security or political stability. Immediately after U.S. news outlets announced Biden’s victory over Trump, senior Saudi diplomats began publicly musing about the possibility of releasing some of the more prominent women activists on humanitarian grounds, possibly linked to the G-20 summit.
In addition, even if it denies that its diplomats had helped Saudi nationals flee U.S. criminal prosecution, Riyadh could quietly assure Washington that steps would be taken to ensure that this won’t happen in the future. Saudi Arabia might even consider returning some of the more egregious suspects even though there is no formal extradition treaty. Saudi Arabia has many options for measures that would convince U.S. leaders that it is trying to bring a modicum of justice to the Khashoggi killing and ensure no such action is ever undertaken in the future, including demonstrable consequences for nonroyal figures widely believed to have played a key part in the killing. And, most important, since a Biden administration would be likely to emphasize the renewed centrality of U.S. diplomacy in foreign policy, Saudi Arabia would be able to work more closely with the United States to help develop a pathway for ending the war in Yemen.
Even the Trump administration made it clear that it wanted Saudi Arabia to end the Yemen war. And Saudi Arabia, too, wants an exit strategy, but Houthi rebels have achieved dominance in most of northern Yemen and demonstrated the ability to threaten Saudi territory directly. As things stand, the Houthis have little incentive to cooperate in helping Saudi Arabia extricate itself from this costly stalemate.
It is unrealistic to expect Saudi Arabia to simply withdraw from Yemen without enforceable security guarantees. But such conditions could be negotiated with help from the United States. At the very least, Saudi Arabia could make clear to a Biden administration the redlines that are minimally required for a Saudi withdrawal: an end to cross border incursions and missile and rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia from Yemen. In addition, Saudi Arabia would surely seek assurances regarding limitations on Iranian and Hezbollah activities in Yemen, but those might prove considerably harder to enforce.
Washington’s assistance could be helpful in rallying the international community to help pressure the Houthis to cooperate with U.N. peace efforts, especially the joint declaration. And it can also help persuade the Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to go along with the arrangement. Should Saudi Arabia seriously commit to ending the conflict, lay out its broad terms, and even begin drawing down its presence in the country, that would be seen by Washington as a very significant step forward. If that withdrawal were primarily based on, and legitimated by, more rigorous antimissile defenses and border protection systems, and especially if Riyadh were to acknowledge U.S. government support for these measures, that would be a major breakthrough with Democrats and Republicans.
At least one other major gesture might score points with Democrats. Even though Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain all went to great lengths to heavily credit the Trump administration with the Abraham Accords, which began a process of normalized relations, mainstream Democrats warmly welcomed the development. It corresponds to their model of how international relations in the Middle East should proceed: through diplomacy, the integration of Israel into the region, the strengthening of ties between pro-U.S. powers, and other initiatives to strengthen a multilateral and rules-based international order. As a result, the UAE was able to ingratiate itself with Democrats, undoing a good deal of damage from its involvement in the Yemen war, human rights concerns, and a close association with Saudi regional policies.
Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman could repair the kingdom’s image in the United States, especially with Democrats, by also agreeing to normalize relations with Israel. Of course, Saudi Arabia has a series of major concerns its smaller Gulf neighbors don’t share, including the impact on its regional Arab leadership role, its pan-Islamic leadership role, and far more complicated, and potentially volatile, its domestic political scene. Yet it is precisely for those reasons, and because of Saudi Arabia’s prominence and strategic importance, that a diplomatic breakthrough with Israel would be seen as so important by a Biden administration. It would also bring much closer together two of Washington’s key partners in the closely linked efforts to contain the spread of Iranian hegemony and maintain stability and the status quo in the Middle East. It could prompt many Americans to reassess their attitudes toward Mohammed bin Salman personally. Since he is likely to inherit the throne in coming years and potentially remain the Saudi monarch for decades, such reputational restoration is going to be necessary.
Take It or Leave It
Saudi Arabia’s third option is risky but plausible: to effectively do nothing. Riyadh may feel that while it still needs Washington, Washington also needs Saudi Arabia. If the United States wishes to remain a major, if not dominant, global power, it cannot abandon the Gulf region and its energy resources to other regional and global powers or to rampant instability. Even a “pivot to Asia” reinforces the continued strategic and economic centrality of the Gulf states because East and South Asian economies are dependent on Gulf energy. And, while Saudi Arabia needs a global patron, the United States requires a local partner in the Gulf.
The key reason for the longevity of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and its ability to survive numerous major stressors is the value both countries continue to place on it. This was recently again made apparent during the Saudi-Russian oil price war in March. Saudi Arabia demonstrated its unique ability to quickly impact prices. It has two key advantages over most of its competitors, including Russia. It can stop and start production without damaging most of its oil fields, and it remains far more able to borrow money to cover immediate losses. This gives it enormous flexibility regarding production and therefore power over raising and lowering prices. The importance of this to Washington was demonstrated by Trump’s appeal to Saudi Arabia to cut production to raise prices to defend U.S. oil-producing companies and states.
Reviewing the long-standing history of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, Riyadh might believe it remains indispensable to Washington and adopt a “take it or leave it” attitude. This option would be bold and risky, but, given that a Biden administration would undoubtedly seek to reassert U.S. global leadership with an emphasis on traditional alliances and stability, isn’t necessarily doomed to failure either.
With Biden in the White House, Saudi Arabia will be suddenly confronted with significant new challenges in dealing with its indispensable ally, the United States. The good news for Saudi leaders is that they have several potential strategies. The challenge for Riyadh is to choose carefully among the options before it based on a careful reading of early signals from the administration regarding the terms on which it is ready to rebuild trust with the kingdom.