Riyadh, Morality and Diplomacy

At the beginning of February, Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of American support for the murderous war that Saudi Arabia has led against its southern neighbor, Yemen, since 2015. “This war has to end,” the president proclaimed as he ended strategic support to Riyadh and the sale of munitions said to be “precision-guided,” which, despite their “precision”— and maybe because of it—have caused the country’s civilian population unspeakable suffering.

Donald Trump — a supposed “non-interventionist” when it came to military matters, although we can find several examples to the contrary — increased this aid. He turned out to be an unconditional supporter, even an enthusiastic one, of the Saudi dictator.

Three weeks later, this same Biden administration is hammering that point home by declassifying the CIA’s memo confirming that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, was without a shadow of a doubt behind the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 in Istanbul.

Do these two strong gestures herald a new turning point in the relationship between the United States and its Persian Gulf partners, primarily with Saudi Arabia?

It is possible. For beyond a volatile “moral” jolt in a relationship that for 70 years has been systematically marked by economic and geostrategic interests and by much political cynicism, there are structural reasons that could fundamentally change the relationship today.

The historical agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia was somewhat of a pact with the devil. Essentially: “I buy your oil that I absolutely need, I protect you strategically by providing you with weapons by the ton and I close my eyes to the Islamic dictatorship, the absolute monarchy, the unjust wars, the cutting off of thieves’ hands, the veiled women, the assassinated dissenters and all the rest.”

This pact is no longer tenable in 2021. Up until the beginning of the 21st century, close to one-third of the oil consumed in the United States came from the Persian Gulf. Today the United States produces as much oil as it imports, and barely 13% of this oil comes from the Persian Gulf. The United States now buys more oil from Mexico than from Saudi Arabia!

And that is without counting the planned reduction in hydrocarbons in the energy equation in the coming years, a strategic priority for Biden, who is a big supporter of green energy.

Additionally, the military equation has also changed fundamentally. Formed at the time of the Soviet Union, the alliance with Saudi Arabia was meant to counter enemies that no longer exist.

On the moral side, duplicity is certainly still very present in diplomacy, but certain things are no longer acceptable; even MBS (hypocritically) argues for “societal” modernization and reforms.

Additionally, there is the question of Iran. Riyadh and Jerusalem constitute a hard line against Tehran. But this line has adversaries in Washington, for which anti-Iranian rigidity must cede the way to an attempt to reintegrate Tehran into world diplomacy by resuming discussions on nuclear weapons and Iran’s strategic presence in the region.

Today, will Biden’s sincere indignation at the war in Yemen and a state assassination cause relations to rupture?

Let us not move too quickly. Old complicities die hard. Even 9/11—where 15 out of 19 terrorists were Saudis—did not break the alliance. Today, lobbyists are busy. Up against Iran, presented as the absolute enemy. Israel and Saudi Arabia (along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates) have become de facto allies.

The declassification of the famous American intelligence “report” was followed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s declaration, saying essentially, “recalibration, yes, a parting of ways, no.” And then, even after explicit word from the Secret Service regarding MBS’s murderous guilt, beyond Biden’s refusal on Thursday, Feb. 25 to speak to him on the telephone, it was not held against him.

Caution, then. The resistance is strong. But the tectonic plates are shifting, relentlessly.

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