(June 9, 2023) As I write this, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Jeddah, meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. An American offer of $150 million was just made to those areas of Iraq and Syria that had fought against ISIS. This can be looked at as an American conciliatory trip to allies we have all but abandoned in our mutual fight against ISIS, and most particularly to Saudi Arabia.
Now that other players have been courting the Saudis, the Americans have realized, a bit late in the game that they cannot avoid the Middle East while turning their attention to other international security threats, and that all of these regional foes are tightly intertwined.
Getting Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords is no simple task. The Saudis are a very proud people, and no doubt were highly insulted when, on the campaign trail, President Biden stated that “We are not going to sell them more weapons. We are, in fact, going to make the Saudis the Pariah state that they deserve to be.” (in reference to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.) Since then, the US administration has walked this back considerably, and we have granted Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Salmon immunity from prosecution
In August, President Biden traveled to the region, fist-bumped Mohammad Bin Salman, and asked the Saudis to increase their production of gas. This was after a particularly devastating summer of American soaring gas prices, and the Saudis did not want to be regarded as a local gas station attendant. Their response was to immediately decrease the supply of gas.
We are now experiencing déjà vu, all over again. We have just asked the Saudis to pump more oil, and they are slashing their productivity by one million barrels a day
In September of 2022, the Biden administration declassified a long-awaited report, particularly for the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, indicating that a Saudi diplomat, Fahad al Thumairy, had been “tasked” with working with an associate, Omar al-Bayoumi, with assisting the hijackers.
Saudi Arabia, the keeper of the two mosques in Mecca and Medina, is a tightly controlled, paternalistic theocracy. They have long been regarded as the most important religious center for Muslims and are the decisive voice in OPEC. They do not appreciate any dirty laundry being aired publicly.
They also are feeling threatened by Iran, and have taken note of our feckless withdrawal from Afghanistan, our drastic troop reduction from Syria, our basic turning away from the Middle East and towards Asia, and our overlooking and ignoring—aside from a very few rhetorical comments— of the egregious human rights situation in Iran. This, because of a futile US effort to resuscitate the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, continues to this very day.
According to the Oslo-based, Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) over 20,000 protestors have been arrested, over 200 people have been hanged so far in 2023 alone, and 500 people have been shot in the streets. The record of executions in Iran is among the worst in the world, with 583 people hanged in 2022. A June 1st report from CHRI details how over 720 students and professors now face arbitrary arrests, and Iranian universities are spearheading the crackdown.
Of course, the Saudis saw all of this, and have been scratching their heads and wondering why there seemed to be selective ethics toward them.
They also were profoundly disappointed when, in May of 2019, there was an attack on the Saudi oil fields by the Houthis, and America did nothing.
The Saudis are also looking across the Persian Gulf and can see a glaring nuclear Shiite arsenal from their very doorsteps. They know that Iran has been stockpiling highly enriched uranium at the 60 percent level and that it will take about 12 days to get to the perilous level of 90 percent. Besides the Beijing brokered deal from March, they have endured seven centuries of bitter enmity with their Shiite rival, and this relationship is still somewhat insecure, but they know that they are an emerging regional power.
America has had a long, solid relationship with Saudi Arabia, stemming back to February 14, 1945, when an aging Franklin Delamore Roosevelt met Saudi King Ibn Azziz al Saud on the USS Quincy destroyer in the Persian Gulf. We were in love with our cars and needed a cheap oil supply. But now that long relationship is being challenged.
Yes, we are talking about “normalization” with Saudi Arabia, and bringing them into the Abraham Accords, and of course, that would be ideal. The Saudis, however, are demanding three, rather high-priced items:
1.) A formal security commitment from the United States, which might involve Senate ratification.
2.) Access to our most advanced weapons systems, including our F 35’s, and
3.) US assistance with the construction of nuclear power plants.
The likelihood of Saudi Arabia getting these three expensive requests from the US is not at all high. They are playing their renewed ties with Iran, China, and Russia against that of the United States. They also are recognizing that this is no longer a unipolar, but a multipolar world, where Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran are calling the shots, and that the United States is still licking its wounds from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is in retreat. As Osama Bin Lauden had said, “When I see a strong horse and a weak horse, I bet on the strong horse.”
Unfortunately, that strong horse is no longer America. In the perception of much of the world, our “situational ethics”, our hubris, what appears to be our glaring double standards, and our lack of dependability as an ally, are all tremendously resented.
The Saudis remain fearful of the emerging Shiite power, just on the other side of the Gulf, and have been “diversifying their portfolio”, only strengthening the forces of Iran, China, and Russia, bringing a new sort of Cold War back into the Middle East.
We have learned from all of this, perhaps too late, that we cannot turn our backs on the Middle East. In so doing, we only strengthen the backs of our collective enemies.
Sarah N. Stern is Founder and President of EMET, a think tank that specializes in the Middle East, and is the author of Saudi Arabia and the Global Terrorist Network, (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).
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