Just as Joe Biden is set to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a US district federal judge sprung on him a thorny legal question: do US interests call for granting sovereign immunity to Mohammed Bin Salman over the murder of the Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi? The judge in charge of the case, which Khashoggi’s fiancée and a pro-democracy advocacy group filed in the District of Columbia, wants the Biden administration to answer by August 1.
The question epitomizes many of the dilemmas Biden faces in the Middle East. On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to champion human rights in his foreign policy and to make Saudi Arabia “pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are” over the Khashoggi affair. Once in office, Biden went on to release to the public a CIA report on the killing of Khashoggi, which stated that Mohammed Bin Salman was directly responsible for approving the operation. Ever since, relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been frosty. But now Biden faces a troubled economy at home. High oil prices and inflation have dampened investment and raised fears of a return to the stagflation of the 1970s. Stagflation doomed Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and with the upcoming midterm elections likely to result in Republic gains, Biden should be concerned about following in the footsteps of his predecessor—a fellow Democrat who often put human rights ahead of US interests.
More broadly, the tension between state interests and human rights long vexed US foreign policy. In the last decade, in particular, this issue contributed to major swings in US policy, straining relations between the United States and a number of long-standing allies and partners in the Middle East. Indeed, Barack Obama’s support for the Arab Spring and the democratic transitions that followed it in Egypt and Tunisia were a source of great concern for the Saudi monarchy, which for a time feared for its own survival in the face of region-wide Islamist challenges. Even Israel came to favor the preservation of the status quo, at least in Arab states in the U.S. sphere of influence, and Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly framed Obama’s support for democratization in the Middle East as hopelessly naïve.
Under Trump, on the other hand, the United States embraced US-aligned autocrats, from Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to Mohammed Bin Salman, brushing aside concerns about human rights abuses. Trump also departed from long-standing US policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the annexation of the Golan Heights. He also withdrew from Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and went on to broker the Abraham Accords, involving UAE recognition of Israel. In inheriting Trump’s Middle East legacies, Biden may have hoped to return democracy promotion and human rights to the forefront of US foreign policy. But much has changed in recent years in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.
U.S. influence in the region is waning, as a result of policy inconsistency, the defeat in Afghanistan, and the reduced military commitment to Iraq. Revolutionary Iran remains defiant, and retains the capacity to strike both US interests and US allies, including through its vast regional network of radical armed movements: Hezbollah in Lebanon; Ansar Allah in Yemen; and assorted militias in Iraq and Syria.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has emerged as the leader of a powerful anti-Islamist regional bloc, which encompasses the UAE, Egypt, and informally even Israel. Mohammed Bin Salman enjoys momentum. The 36-year-old Crown Prince has now been the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia for several years. He has neutralized all sources of domestic opposition and is virtually certain to inherit the throne upon the death of his father, King Salman, who is 86 years old and in poor health. Saudi Arabia, moreover, no longer fears a domino effect of popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. The Muslim Brotherhood is but a shadow of its former self and Sisi’s Egypt appears remarkably stable. Tunisia is once again an autocracy, and its president is close to Saudi Arabia.
Even Erdogan gave in. The Turkish president was long a major critic of Mohammed Bin Salman but domestic economic woes and the failures of Sunni Islamist movements compelled him to bow to the Saudi monarchy. Erdogan thus visited Riyadh in April and invited Mohammed Bin Salman to Ankara in June. Photographs of the meeting showed a buoyant Mohammed Bin Salman smiling broadly, next to a subdued and visibly uncomfortable Erdogan. In this context, it is worth remembering that in April a Turkish court decided in a two to one vote to transfer the Khashoggi murder trial to a Saudi court—a highly controversial move that came amid Erdogan’s efforts to mend ties with Saudi Arabia. Tellingly, the dissenting judge has since been transferred to a minor court in southern Turkey—a demotion she believes was due to her dissenting opinion on the Khashoggi case. The episode should give Biden pause with respect to executive involvement in judicial affairs.
Now Mohammed Bin Salman is set to preside over the most important Middle East summit in years. The summit, which will be held on July 16 in Jeddah, will bring together the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Biden, King Abdullah II of Jordan, the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and the Iraqi prime minister Mustapha Al-Kadhimi. The Saudi Crown Prince has good reason to feel jubilant.
It might be tempting for Biden to renege on his campaign pledges to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its crimes, in the hopes of securing a Saudi commitment to higher oil output and provide a boost to the US economy ahead of the midterm elections. However, Biden is unlikely to extract major concessions from Saudi Arabia. First of all, Saudi Arabia and its closest ally, the UAE, appear to have limited capacity to boost oil output. In fact, French president Emmanuel Macron was overheard telling Biden just that at the most recent G-7 meeting. According to Macron, the Emirati president Mohammed Bin Zayed said the Saudis can only add 150,000 barrels per day to their oil output, which currently stands at around 11 million barrels per day. Additional increases would take months and would not materialize before 2023. For Biden, that’s too little, too late.
Another reason why Mohammed Bin Salman is unlikely to help Biden is that he would much rather deal with a Republican administration in Washington, ideally one in line with Trump’s foreign policy principles. Trump never criticized the human rights record of US allies and partners, nor did he object to arms sales. Biden ought to remain cognizant that Mohammed Bin Salman hopes the Democratic Party will perform poorly in upcoming elections.
Still, the US president could manage to chart a more cogent US policy towards the Middle East, and one that is fully consistent with democratic principles, if he chooses to work with Saudi Arabia and its regional allies on measures aimed to defuse tensions with Iran. There is evidence that Saudi Arabia is already pursuing a détente with its archenemy. The strongest evidence is that the truce in Yemen is still holding. The absence of major outbreaks of conflict in Syria is also promising. Iraq, moreover, continues to serve as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a breakthrough may be close. Even the usually strident Al-Manar news network, which is owned by Hezbollah, recently acknowledged that Saudi Arabia and Iran may be about to restore relations, and that the two countries have made progress on a number of outstanding issues—which in turn could ease tensions across the Middle East.
Biden could build on these developments. The nuclear deal talks with Iran are currently stalled, and the Islamic Republic is making alarming progress in uranium enrichment, inching progressively closer to having enough fissile material for a bomb. Israel is rightly concerned. Miscalculations on both sides remain a concrete possibility. In early July, for example, Hezbollah dispatched drones to Israel’s offshore gas fields, injecting uncertainty in European plans to import gas from Israel, via Egypt. Israel shot down the drones but the risk of conflict with Hezbollah remains high. A nuclear deal with Iran could contribute to defuse regional tensions, and that should remain a policy priority for the United States. Even senior Israeli intelligence officials now believean imperfect deal is preferable to no deal.
In any case, Biden will have to thread a fine line on his visit to Saudi Arabia, engaging with Mohammed Bin Salman without renouncing earlier commitments. If Putin’s war in Ukraine holds a lesson for the world’s democracies, it is that appeasing authoritarians in exchange for access to cheaper fossil fuels or other economic benefits is a shortsighted and ultimately counterproductive policy.