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On Saudi Arabia: Biden should learn from Trump's ultimatums

US President Donald Trump (R) meets with Mohammed Bin Salman, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on 14 March 2017 in Washington, DC [Mark Wilson/Getty Images]
US President Donald Trump (R) meets with Mohammed Bin Salman, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on 14 March 2017 in Washington, DC [Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

In January 2021, the US State Department declared that "Saudi Arabia is a vital US partner on a wide range of regional security issues". But as 2021 came to a close, we learned that US intelligence agencies believe Saudi Arabia is now actively manufacturing its own ballistic missiles with the help of China. The days of an unquestionably loyal partner in Al-Saud are over. How does the US manage such an untamed security partner?

The murder of prominent Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, was arguably the cause of the greatest rift in US-Saudi relations since 9/11. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to make a pariah out of the Kingdom for Khashoggi's gruesome killing and dismemberment, as well as a host of other human rights abuses, including complicity in bringing about what the UN has deemed "the world's worst humanitarian crisis" in Yemen.

However, since the end of his victorious campaign, Biden's promises have remained just that – promises. We argue that Saudi Arabia must be confronted with boundaries and ultimatums, leaving the current regime no choice but to respect international human rights standards.

How can a Biden administration realistically render Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's (MBS) regime a pariah in light of their governments' many converging interests? For decades, the US has largely been content to rely on their sizable Gulf partner in advancing American interests by acting as a bulwark against Iran and ensuring American access to a consistent oil pipeline. In 2019 alone, the US imported an average of 500,000 barrels of crude oil from Saudi Arabia a day

As much as the US-Saudi relationship undeniably yields mutual benefit, it is a lopsided one, with the Saudis benefitting exponentially more. It is precisely because this partnership is an unequal one that the Biden administration enjoys the leverage to re-imagine its foreign policy vis-a-vis MBS by prioritising human rights goals.

READ: Saudi Arabia, China agree to boost military cooperation

Former President Trump was notorious for his defence of MBS in the wake of the murder of Khashoggi, even gloating that he had "saved his ass." While Trump's stance on key human rights issues was poor, he understood the language of authoritarians. In mid-March of 2020, Saudi Arabia announced its state-owned Aramco would pump a record 12.3 million barrels per day, unleashing an all-out price war with Russia. As demand had come to a screeching halt with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, supply had reached new records, and US oil companies suffered.

In response, Senators Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) introduced legislation that would remove all US troops, Patriot missiles and anti-missile defence systems from the Kingdom unless Saudi Arabia dialled back oil output. On 2 April, in a phone call with Saudi Crown Prince, MBS, then-President Trump declared an ultimatum – fix this unprecedented increase in production (i.e., end the price war) or I will do nothing to protect you from the impending wrath of Congress.

That same day, the Saudis would call for an OPEC+ emergency meeting to discuss stabilising the markets. On 12 April, MBS and his Russian counterparts obliged, each agreeing to a production cut of 2.5 million barrels per day. When communicating displeasure and demanding a change in behaviour, the Biden administration must understand that the language of authoritarians is one of boundaries and ultimatums.

Direct sanctions on MBS have been ruled out by this administration, simply because of "precedent." When asked why MBS was not included in the Department of Treasury's list of Saudis sanctioned for the Khashoggi killing, White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, noted that "historically, the United States … has not typically sanctioned government leaders of countries where we have diplomatic relations."

In fact, the US has never shied in issuing targeted sanctions on oligarchs in other states and, given that MBS is yet to be the official head of state, with his father, King Salman, still on the throne, Psaki's comments were out of touch.

Yet, sanctioning MBS is not the only goal. It is a matter of holding MBS accountable on human rights, utilising the US' natural leverage in the US-Saudi relationship to pressure MBS to release all prisoners of conscience, end the disastrous war on Yemen and reform the socio-political nature of the Kingdom. These goals are immediately achievable with a White House that speaks to authoritarians in a language they can relate to, one of consequential ultimatums.

Without that shift in language, MBS will continue to perceive Biden as weak. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to hold MBS accountable for egregious human rights abuses, only to face no direct sanctions and a largely symbolic 'Khashoggi Ban' on many of his cronies. That is why, most recently, the Saudis have felt emboldened, withholding oil production in an attempt to purposefully enact revenge on Biden and the Democrats by increasing energy prices and fuelling global inflation.

READ: Saudi Arabia, China agree to boost military cooperation

Standoffs with MBS—like this one—require the Biden administration to pull a page out of the Trump playbook, presenting MBS with an ultimatum. Maintaining a long and storied relationship with our Saudi partners is important. However, if meaningful and substantive improvements to an abysmal human rights record are not realised, point to one of several efforts in Congress that directly implicate him or Saudi Arabia at large. In essence, the administration communicates to MBS that this is not a matter of us versus you, this is you versus Congress. And we will not stand in Congress' way.

Last year's oil price war set the precedent that MBS will act quickly and efficiently when the costs are high. Republican Senators threatened the removal of US troops and defence systems for the sake of preserving US oil companies, and MBS got the message. Ultimatums like these are even more necessary when voicing concerns on egregious human rights violations. A plethora of prisoners of conscience languish in Saudi prisons, hundreds of whom were imprisoned after MBS' rise to power, many of whom remain in solitary confinement. The repercussions of the MBS-led war on Yemen are catastrophic and require real leadership from the US and its partners.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to fill a hole that Trump did not, fulfilling campaign promises to hold Saudi accountable on its atrocious human rights record by employing its leverage as a security guarantor. MBS has been, and will continue to be, a destabilising force both in the region and abroad. Many Saudi-American dual nationals, US persons, and former US students continue to face torture, harassment, prison sentences and travel bans. How we choose to manage that kind of partner will set the tone for years to come.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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