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Pariah or partner? U.S. navigates complicated, contradictory relationship with Saudi Arabia

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Biden with a fist bump
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Biden with a fist bump after the U.S. leader’s arrival in Jeddah on July 15, 2022.
(Saudi Press Agency via Associated Press)
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Visits to Saudi Arabia by high-profile U.S. officials are always problematic. The two countries have a love-hate relationship.

Politicians and the public criticize the Saudi kingdom’s human rights record and repression of women; its unwillingness to increase oil production; its coziness with Russia, China and, now, even with erstwhile enemy Iran.

But the U.S. and Saudi Arabia also need each other — for trade and for broader security arrangements in the Middle East, including conflicts in Yemen and Sudan, where they work together to broker cease-fires or deliver humanitarian aid to devastated populations.

And the Biden administration is fervently coaxing Riyadh to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, following similar Trump-era breakthrough gestures by a small number of other gulf or Muslim nations.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken wrapped up a four-day visit to the Saudi cities of Jeddah and Riyadh last week, which included a midnight meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Salman, the de facto ruler of the nation, is a ruthless dictator, a bold reformer or both, depending on whom you ask. The 37-year-old prince is largely considered responsible for the brutal killing and dismemberment of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. President Biden once called Salman a pariah and vowed to shun him, a pledge eventually reversed in a famous fist bump between the two last year.

Executions of perceived enemies of the kingdom have surged under Salman’s rule, human rights activists say, and reports of arbitrary detention and torture of activists, including many women, persist — even as he lifted some anachronistic restrictions on women, such as allowing them to drive cars.

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Despite the litany of Saudi transgressions, the Biden administration is engaging with the kingdom as a way to demonstrate it still has influence in the Middle East — at a time many in the region note Washington has been absent in consequential events and decisions and as China and Russia flex their diplomatic and military muscle where the U.S. was once the unrivaled superpower.

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“I would say that my presence here over the last three days is one element to demonstrate that, no, we’re certainly not leaving. We’re here to stay,” Blinken told the Saudi-based Asharq News network Thursday when asked about the U.S. commitment to the region.

“Day in, day out, we’re working with partners throughout the region … both to deal with many of the challenges that … are real and urgent and acute, but also — and this is so important — on an affirmative agenda for the future,” Blinken added. “We are a partner, and we’re here.”

Blinken, in a separate news conference in Riyadh, said he “discussed” human rights in his meetings with Salman and other Saudi officials and “made clear that progress on human rights strengthens our relationship.”

He said he raised “specific” cases, including those of several U.S. citizens who are imprisoned in the kingdom, but would not say whether he had secured guarantees of their freedom nor would he enter into any other details.

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Critics accuse the Biden administration of papering over Saudi abuses and fault it for not denouncing them more robustly, which in turn emboldens Salman.

“The administration needs to abandon its behind-closed-doors approach to addressing human rights” in Saudi Arabia, said Tess McEnery, who served on Biden’s National Security Council until last year and now heads the nongovernmental Project on Middle East Democracy. “There need to be clear public costs to [Salman’s] repression. … For nearly a year [since the Biden visit], we’ve seen what a policy of appeasement looks like.”

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In Congress, lawmakers have revived legislation that could block arms sales to Saudi Arabia based on its human rights record, and two measures have been proposed that would punish governments for “transnational repression,” the illegal pursuit by a country outside its borders of dissidents or critics, as happened with Khashoggi. It is a tactic also frequently used by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government has been accused of hunting down and poisoning opponents in England and elsewhere.

While in Saudi Arabia last week, Blinken also came under criticism for praising what he called Saudi “progress” on its treatment of women, lauding the first female Saudi astronaut to go into space and meeting with eight handpicked Saudi women identified by the State Department as leaders. Blinken’s remarks came even as numerous Saudi women are being given decades-long prison sentences for what supporters say are minor offenses, such as failing to wear an abaya on social media or tweeting criticisms of the kingdom.

Substantial progress for women “is only a narrative that the Saudi government is selling to the West,” Lina AlHathloul, a longtime Saudi activist fighting for women’s rights and free speech, said in an interview from Brussels, where she has sought refuge from her government. “It is only window dressing. … And the government sees a green light to double down on repression.”

AlHathloul campaigned for years to free her sister Loujain, who was arrested in 2018 for driving. Loujain is out of prison now but banned from traveling or speaking publicly.

Though women have been granted the right to drive and some access to elections, Saudi Arabia’s so-called guardianship rules remain in place, which restrict many activities such as travel or marriage for women without a male relative’s permission.

Saudi officials insist that they have made significant progress in human rights, but will only advance on their own terms.

“We are always open to having a dialogue with our friends, but we don’t respond to pressure,” Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said at the Riyadh news conference with Blinken. “When we do anything, we do it in our own interests. And I don’t think that anybody believes that pressure is useful or helpful, and therefore that’s not something that we are going to even consider.”

One reason the Biden administration seeks to keep its relationship with Saudi Arabia on a cordial keel is the role the oil-rich kingdom can play in integrating Israel into a region that has long refused to recognize Israel’s existence.

The Trump administration brokered the Abraham Accords, under which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for the first time opened diplomatic and economic ties with Israel.

As the powerhouse of the gulf, Saudi Arabia would be a prized addition to the declaration, but it is so far resisting. Saudi officials cite the continued failure to resolve the Palestinian quest for an independent state. Riyadh has also listed a series of high-stake demands, including U.S. help in developing nuclear power, but U.S. officials see that as an opening gambit.

Meanwhile, the current Israeli government is the most right-wing in its history, with possibilities for progress on the Palestinian cause considered nonexistent.

In Riyadh last week, Blinken said Saudi-Israeli normalization remained a “priority.”

But the Saudi foreign minister countered that while desirable, the goal would remain remote “without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people … a pathway towards a two-state solution, on finding a pathway towards giving the Palestinians dignity and justice.”

It would also be a bad look for the Saudis to get closer to Israel at a time when deadly clashes and attacks are surging in Israel, the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and after several incursions by Israeli police into the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. Al Aqsa is the third-holiest site in Islam, located in an area also sacred to Jews.

“The Saudis are not in a hurry to normalize,” he said, even as “the Biden administration has prioritized it higher on the list than [an independent state] for the Palestinians, which is now just a talking point.”

Shira Efron, research director at the U.S.-based Israel Policy Forum, said that while Israel badly wants to enjoy the fruits of normalization, the pieces of the puzzle remain exceedingly complicated, with U.S. and Israel reluctant to accede to the Saudis’ most robust demands.

“And if the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were able to agree on what the U.S. will give, would Congress approve?” she said, adding that room for negotiation is likely to shrink as the U.S. presidential election gets into full swing.

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