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Why Biden’s State Department Demoted Saudi Arabia

The new administration is trying to find the right balance between values and narrow interest.
March 3, 2021
Why Biden’s State Department Demoted Saudi Arabia
Joe Biden, then vice president, meets with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister at the Riyadh airbase on October 27, 2011. (AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration has wasted no time in reorienting U.S.-Saudi relations. In just a few weeks, there have been four major changes that have dismayed Saudi Arabia’s friends on the American right and dissatisfied its critics on the left.

The predicate for the Biden administration’s realignment of relations with the kingdom is four years of listless, ham-fisted pro-Saudi policy under the Trump administration, which produced little good. Since 2017, the Saudi government has increased the intensity of the Yemeni civil war, helping create a humanitarian catastrophe in which large portions of the population are suffering from starvation and disease. The  Saudi Air Force dropped precision-guided munitions—long sold to them by the United States in hopes of reducing civilian casualties—onto hospitals and schools. Yet even with cutting-edge U.S. military technology, the Saudis could only manage to reach a stalemate with a bunch of Houthi rebels armed with leftover Iranian equipment. In 2018, the Saudi government murdered Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Meanwhile, while social and religious repression in Saudi Arabia marginally softened (with women given some rights such as driving, slight personal autonomy, and attending stadiums), political oppression increased. Through all this, the Trump administration gave the Saudis a blank check to do whatever they wanted in the region—as though the United States needed Saudi Arabia more than Saudi Arabia needed the United States.

The Biden administration’s actions so far suggest they don’t see it that way.

In the first major development, the State Department reduced the status of Saudi Arabia from “ally” to “partner” in official statements—a shift that suggests a more transactional relationship.

Then, on February 4, President Biden announced the end of the U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni Civil War.

Days later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken secured the release of Saudi feminist activist Loujain al-Hathloul from prison. Al-Hathloul had been kidnapped in Dubai in 2018 due to her activism in favor of women’s rights, in particular permission to drive. In prison, she was subjected to electric shocks, waterboarding, physical beating, whipping, and at least threatened with rape. Her husband was allegedly forced to divorce her during her incarceration.

Last week, the administration declassified a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on Khashoggi’s murder. The decision to release the report was largely symbolic—the report didn’t contain much information that hadn’t already appeared in the press. But it directly implicated the Saudi crown prince, deputy prime minister, and de facto head of government, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)—and it has a different sting coming from the U.S. government than from journalists.

On the same day that the administration released the ODNI report on Khashoggi, Blinken announced what he called a “Khashoggi ban”—a discretionary use of immigration law to bar anyone associated with Khashoggi’s murder from entering the United States. When asked if the ban would apply even to MBS, the State Department spokesman was noncommittal, only offering that he was “certainly not aware of any plans for the crown prince to travel to the United States in the near term.”

So who has the better case? The left-leaning critics, who think Biden is going too easy on Saudi Arabia in general and MBS in particular, and have criticized the administration for not publicly declaring that MBS would be denied entry to the United States? Or the Iran hawks on the right who have attacked the administration  for antagonizing an anti-Iran partner?

These are a lot of developments in rapid succession for a bilateral relationship that will occupy the administration’s attention for the next four years and will continue to be important for subsequent administrations. Here are five things to keep in mind:

1. Only one in four Americans have a favorable view of Saudi Arabia. The U.S. government needs the support of the American people to sustain any alliance or a partnership in the long run. Saudis are seen less favorably than U.S. adversaries such as Venezuela and Cuba, but Americans are right to be more critical of autocracies whose oppression is enabled by American aid. Biden understood this as a candidate: During a primary debate, he referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah.” Now he has to work out exactly what it means for a major American partner to also be an international outcast.

2. America’s moral authority is an asset in foreign policy. Take it from a former dissident activist: Oppressed peoples still turn to the United States as a beacon of freedom. Against Russia, China, and Iran, the victims of our adversaries’ tyranny are America’s greatest allies. But moral authority requires consistency and cannot be used only when convenient. The Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky recognized the need for realpolitik, but he asked that every now and again, Western leaders ask themselves, “How will it look to the boys in the camps?”

When the United States tolerates or even encourages the torturous, evil, vicious regime in Riyadh, how does it look to the prisoners of conscience in Cuba, the democrats in Russia—even the Uighurs in China?

3. Moral authority is a pain. When the Reagan administration published its human rights policy memorandum, it acknowledged that “a human rights policy means trouble, for it means hard choices which may adversely affect certain bilateral relations. There is no escaping this without destroying the credibility of our policy, for otherwise we would be simply coddling friends and criticizing foes.” Human rights policy creates awkward episodes between the United States and its allies and partners.

The United States alienated the Saudis by pursuing and signing the Iran Deal during the Obama administration, by pushing Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt in 2011, and by refusing to support anti-Assad forces in Syria. In response, the Saudis developed closer political and military ties to Russia, including purchasing Russia’s most advanced anti-aircraft system, whose integration with the rest of their American-made military risks the exposure of secret U.S. capabilities. So the United States can’t afford to antagonize the Saudis too much.

But on the other hand, what’s the point of being the paragon of global democracy and the tentpole nation of the international world order if an oil-soaked desert monarchy gets a veto over your foreign policy?

4. The United States can’t simply deny MBS a visa on grounds of moral purity. First and foremost, MBS, in addition to being crown prince and deputy prime minister, is also the minister of defense of Saudi Arabia, controlling a large arsenal of U.S.-made military equipment and hosting five U.S. military bases. Whether or not it was a good idea to sell the Saudis that equipment and to locate American bases there in the first place is beside the point—these military ties exist today, and Pentagon officials need to be in direct communication with MBS. Creating a diplomatic rift would make the American military’s job harder.

White House Press Secretary Jes Psaki has indicated that Biden intends to bypass MBS and directly engage with his father, King Salman, but that will not be easy. MBS is the man who runs the Saudi government, and the 85-year-old king is reportedly senile.

Moreover, if the United States imposes such restrictions on an ally, it only follows that it would impose even stricter measures on an adversary. What message would the United States be sending, and what policy would it be promoting, if MBS were barred from American shores but Xi Jinping, who is overseeing a genocide in China, could come and go as he pleases?

5. Saudi Arabia is not a pariah state, but a pariah government. MBS is the head of government for now, but the Saudi state is another matter. Unlike North Korea, which best meets the definition of an international pariah, Saudi Arabia’s entire governing structure doesn’t have to change for the country to have normal relations with most of the world. A change in government can fix many things, and MBS has done a lot to make enemies within the royal court. King Salman fired his first crown prince, and could conceivably fire MBS too. The United States can nudge the king in the direction of leadership more favorable to American interests.

But even a more acceptable leader shouldn’t be given as long a leash as the Saudis have enjoyed for decades. Rather, the United States should put pressure on the Saudi government to liberalize politically and eventually make democracy in Saudi Arabia possible. Democratization should be the price Saudi Arabia has to pay for its cozy position under the American security umbrella and for the benefits of participating in the liberal international order.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.