The backlash in the United States from OPEC+’s decision to cut oil production last week was swift. Given Saudi Arabia’s reportedly decisive role in pushing the decision, members of Congress rushed to threaten legislative consequences. President Joe Biden joined the chorus, affirming that his administration will “re-evaluate” the US relationship with Saudi Arabia as a result of the OPEC decision. Biden didn’t stop there: He later affirmed directly that there would be “consequences,” while his State Department’s press secretary reiterated in a press briefing that the president believes “the relationship with the Saudis has to be recalibrated.” Finally.
It would be actively harmful for Biden to follow up this statement (not to mention his embarrassing fist-bumping rehabilitation meeting with bone saw killer Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS) with no meaningful action. Given who is advising him, however, this writer’s hopes aren’t high. After several years of meaningful bipartisan congressional attempts to end arms sales and security cooperation in Congress, it’s time to think bigger than temporary bans and conditions if the United States seeks to meaningfully reset its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
GO BEYOND ARM SALES
Besides sporadic outbursts of bipartisan congressional criticism and attempts to stop weapons sales under the Reagan, Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, US policymakers have mostly either looked away or only expressed private concern about the Saudi monarchy’s brutality toward its own and other people in the region. Despite virulent public sentiment against the Saudi government following 9/11 and the intelligence failures that contributed to the attacks, the adoption of the preventative war framework made intelligence-sharing and military interoperability with other countries (including Saudi Arabia) appear increasingly more valuable than anything else.
Accountability is the key ingredient that has been missing in the US relationship with Saudi Arabia for the last near-century. And it’s beyond time to make meaningful investments to end the impunity the Kingdom currently enjoys.
As America’s post-9/11 wars expanded worldwide, the US military increasingly relied on a strategy of working by, with, and through foreign military partners to fight these wars. As a result, publicly criticizing or seeking to materially change the US approach to “allied” countries like the Gulf states remained largely taboo in Washington. This silence on Saudi abuses largely held until MBS began playing his greatest hits: launching his ill-fated military misadventure and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen; detaining and shaking down his political challengers or arresting and torturing everyone from political dissidents to everyday people, including women critical of the monarchy or its imposed morality; bankrolling repression from Egypt to Sudan; kidnapping and forcing the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister on television; and sending (not always successful) state-sponsored hit squads to kill Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other Saudi Arabians around the world.
Despite the media chorus singing his praises as a reformer due to his young age, MBS’ litany of abuses eventually made what had been so obvious just under the surface impossible to ignore. Considering the US government essentially built the modern capabilities of the Saudi military and security forces, it has been helpful for Congress to try to stop the bleeding by trying to stop the US military from enabling war crimes.
After decades of well-documented abuses, however, Congress remains focused on narrow weapons bans that, while important, are merely one small piece of accountability in what should be a much larger strategy rethink that fundamentally reshapes the relationship for the 21st century. Should Biden fail to take real action, Congress should pick up the mantle of reimagining how the United States creates security for its people, because more bombs and deals for dictators aren’t helping.
NOT JUST SLOGANS: SOLIDARITY, JUSTICE, AND DIGNITY
So what would a meaningful, strategic reassessment of US national interests as it pertains to Saudi Arabia today look like? Like all progressive foreign policy, it must be rooted in progressive principles; the values of solidarity, justice, and human dignity. Centering these principles in policymaking could foment a fundamental shift in the relationship with the Kingdom that puts the interests of its rulers front and center. Such a resetting could also provide a model to do so with other authoritarians claimed as US allies.
An approach rooted in solidarity with the Saudi people — as well as other folx in the region that have suffered the brunt of Saudi-sponsored repression — would prioritize US relations with the interests and needs of those people, not the monarchs ruling them. It would no longer see human rights and security as a false tradeoff, but the same side of the coin. It can and should discuss areas of actual mutual interest. Instead of misconstruing the stability of the region to the stability of its authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, US policymakers would be better off tying the future of its relationship to changemakers in Saudi Arabia (and the region) who have the most vested interest in creating a more just and prosperous future for all.
Rather than impose a vision of the Saudi and regional future that suits the US government and its corporate backers, the United States should focus on long-term, structural outcomes in its bilateral relationship that can help enable the people of Saudi Arabia, and in other authoritarian countries, to choose their own future. Experiences in other countries show the importance of empowering and expanding the role of civil society to build sustainable peace. Just like at home, investing in people — not profits — is in the fundamental security interest of the United States.
A STRAIGHTFORWARD WAY TO ACCOUNTABILITY
The US ability to foment justice in the relationship with Saudi Arabia is straightforward. Despite congressional handwringing about the United States losing its leverage, the US security relationship with Saudi Arabia has a reverse dependence wherein the client has become the more powerful patron. Accountability is the key ingredient that has been missing in the US relationship with Saudi Arabia for the last near century. And it’s beyond time to make meaningful investments to end the impunity the Saudi monarchy currently enjoys.
Transformative justice, however, requires more than accountability. It also requires building broader societal trust, understanding, and dialogue across communities about current harms and solutions to these challenges in the long term. Only the Saudi people can lead such a generational project to transform their country and society’s social contract, but an independent, non-complicit United States could be a supportive ally to the cause. If the United States continues to eschew international accountability for itself and seeks to disempower facts about Saudi abuses it finds politically uncomfortable, it will not be able to be the ally the Saudi people need it to be.
So long as the United States believes that solidarity, justice, and human dignity are side-shows, only important for use as political cudgels against enemies when US hegemony is perceived to be at risk, it will continue to alienate potential allies and undermine the cause of democracy and human rights globally. The Saudi government (along with its partner-in-crime the United Arab Emirates) has offered itself up as the first opportunity for a long-overdue structural shift in US foreign policy. It’s time to let accountability, not impunity, reign.
Kate Kizer is a senior non-resident fellow for security policy at the Center for International Policy, and a columnist at Inkstick.