First of all, the American administration must realize that the tensions of its fraught relationship with the kingdom are not caused by China or Russia or any other country – except the US, and the policies it has pursued over many years and administrations, especially the current one.
Rather than being Riyadh’s most important ally, as it had been for decades, Washington began making up arguments and pretexts to lower the level of the relationship and reduce its overall commitment to the region at a time when Saudi Arabia needed its traditional ally more than ever before.
Facing challenges both domestic and external, the Saudi leadership has declared a full-scale social revolution and launched Vision 2030, a strategic framework to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism.
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s modernization project was launched as Saudi Arabia faces multiple external challenges. With the decline of traditional Arab powers such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq, the kingdom’s responsibilities have increased dramatically, and it is now in large part responsible for preserving security, peace, and stability in the region, both in terms of confronting the escalating Iranian threat on Arab countries and resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Left unresolved, both hinder efforts to develop and modernize our region or even begin seeking solutions to highly complex Arab issues involving Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
IN THE MIDST of a fierce struggle for change and national reform, the kingdom’s ally famously declared Saudi Arabia a “pariah” “with very little social redeeming value.” When a nation finds that its traditional ally is no longer committed to their relationship, it is only natural to look for new allies, especially since no country can solve all its problems alone, not even the US. Biden’s visit is proof of that.
IRGC vs US Navy
If more proof were needed, it came last Monday when three Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) fast-attack boats traveling at dangerously fast speeds sped directly toward two US Navy ships in the international waters of the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz and only altered their course in the last 50 yards to avoid a collision.
In late March, the commander of the IRCGN, a sectarian force that reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warned Middle Eastern governments, including Israel, against any role in the Persian Gulf, noting his navy’s increased power of “UAVs, submarines, vessels, missiles [and] electronic warfare units.”
During my visits to the kingdom and in discussions with many of its officials and citizens, it is clear that the US is the preferred ally of the Saudis, which only increases their dissatisfaction with American policy toward their country.
The US should realize, however, that Saudi Arabia’s preference for it as an ally does not stem from a lack of possible partnerships with other nations. On the contrary, there are many, and they can offer considerable power to the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Beijing, for example, goes beyond selling oil. It offers the possibility of military cooperation, investment of Chinese military factories in Saudi Arabia, and nuclear missile purchases. Russia is also available. In fact, Biden’s visit was no doubt spurred by the kingdom’s commitment to its agreement with Moscow within the framework of OPEC+, which aims to regulate the supply of oil in order to set the price on the world market.
Therefore, the Biden administration must know that Saudi Arabia cannot accept its double standards or stand by while it refused to reclassify the Houthis as a terrorist group, and ignored the kingdom’s urgent requests for the Patriot antimissile interceptors needed to defend itself against attacks by the Houthi movement in Yemen, especially in light of the billions in military assistance the US has given Ukraine against Russia.
Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in itself is a good thing. It is always best to communicate directly, but this visit and its repercussions on the agenda items in which the kingdom is involved, and the challenges it faces, will determine how successful Saudi Arabia has been in investing in its political movements over the past few years.
The kingdom has proven its ability to make achievements in political, economic and social fronts.
Politically, the recent visits of the Turkish and Pakistani presidents to Saudi Arabia indicate that both nations, which rank among the largest non-Arab Islamic powers, recognize Saudi Arabia as an important authority in the Islamic world.
Economically, the rise in oil prices has brought huge returns – the kingdom’s gross domestic product is estimated to exceed $1 trillion this year – and prompted major oil producers to increase production by about 400,000 barrels per day in exchange for a change in American attitude.
Socially, the revolution led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has begun to bear fruit not only in expanding the cultural arts but, more importantly, the empowerment of Saudi women and youth, allowing the employment of their capabilities and the realization of their ambitions.
If the US wants the kingdom’s help in finding alternatives to Russian oil and gas to reduce its energy costs and thereby strip Russia of its strongest leverage card while also boosting the chances of victory for the president’s party in November’s midterm elections, then the White House must understand that nothing comes for free.
A pragmatic approach is necessary concerning political action, since costs must be borne. The cost here is not in the interest of the kingdom alone, but rather of the region as a whole, as well as the US itself.
SO, WHAT does the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia want? The answer is threefold. American support for Vision 2030; repeal of the US Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which is used to threaten Saudi Arabia as well as the protections sovereign countries currently enjoy; and the nullification of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s proposal to undermine the crown prince under the guise of human rights, and her efforts to block the proposed sale of 280 air-to-air missiles Saudi Arabia needs to defend itself against drone attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
Meanwhile, Riyadh is trying to create a stable and calm regional environment so that the persistent Iranian threat can be eliminated. The kingdom continues to conduct dialogue with its hostile neighbor.
What is important is that the American approach in dealing with Tehran does not lead to the failure of this dialogue. Another challenge is the Palestinian cause, which, when resolved, will provide the cornerstone of peace in the region. These are among the most important issues that must be addressed in the upcoming visit.
The kingdom was able to achieve this diplomatic victory, so to speak, of a presidential visit not because of oil alone, but due to the high flexibility it showed in its positions regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine. Riyadh has proven to Biden, and all future American presidents, that it is a vital player and that its relationship with Washington should not be taken for granted. It is imperative that the kingdom maximize its gains, especially since the US is racing against time to maximize its gains from the kingdom.
Needless to say, the kingdom must prepare all regional issues, as the matter is not limited to energy and combating terrorism, the traditional areas of US-Saudi cooperation.
Things are different today. Biden and his administration are both ready and compelled to listen. Just as increasing oil production, Arab-Israeli relations, and the Palestinian issue will be discussed in the meeting between Saudi leaders and Biden, so should other issues, especially Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
I focus here on the Syrian matter in particular, since most of the obstacles that impeded the normalization of Syria’s relations with its Arab neighbors were, directly or indirectly, linked to Washington’s position. This issue has many effects, such as containing Iranian influence in the Arab countries and consolidating the kingdom’s role as a reliable mediator capable of helping resolve the region’s crises.
THE RESULTS of the first phase of Biden’s visit to the region will be the criterion for the success of the next phases, the most important of which is the upcoming second summit meeting that will include the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and other Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. This historic restoration of a regional international event is expected to make a difference in the history of the region for decades to come.
Biden's visit: mess or success?
Having laid out all the issues that are expected to be discussed, it seems logical to ask: Can this summit provide satisfactory results for everyone in most, if not all, issues? In this case, can Biden’s visit be considered a success and have achieved its goals?
I believe Saudi Arabia will deal with Biden at the first summit, as will other Arab countries attending the second summit, with a “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” viewpoint. Indeed, Arabs have been disappointed too many times when dealing with the West and the US since 1948.
In their relations with the West, Arabs suffered from having to always serve only the interests of one party, mostly the Americans. Therefore, I expect that the direct results of Biden’s visit will be much less than expected. It won’t be a complete failure, of course, yet its success will not be immediately noticeable.
Since I hold a middle position between pessimism and optimism, I believe that the visit’s media and diplomatic resonance will outweigh its practical results, which will depend on a radical change in the American administration’s attitude toward Arabs in general and Saudi Arabia in particular.