Why Saudi Arabia (still) tests limits of US influence

Why Saudi Arabia (still) tests limits of US influence

Why We Wrote This

Why did the U.S. shrink from stronger action with Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi killing? One reason the kingdom is resistant to U.S. influence: It sees itself as an equal partner.

Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters/File

People attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Fatih mosque courtyard in Istanbul, Nov. 16, 2018.


March 5, 2021

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When Saudi Arabia’s founder, Ibn Saud, and President Franklin Roosevelt entered an agreement in the waning days of World War II in 1945, they did so as equal partners forging an alliance of mutual interests. That equality explains a lot about the limits of U.S. influence experienced by American presidents since.

After releasing the U.S. intelligence report on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration came under fire for not dealing more harshly with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

State Department spokesman Ned Price addressed the fundamental tensions that exist in the relationship. “We seek to accomplish a great deal with the Saudis,” he said, “but we can only address these many important challenges in a partnership with Saudi Arabia that respects America’s values.”

But the U.S. has limited sway with a partner that sees itself as independent.

“The Saudis … don’t expect to be talked down to,” says David Rundell, former chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. “Saudi Arabia is a country where personal relationships matter a great deal. There are limits to how antagonistic you can be without severely damaging your own interests. We are approaching those limits.”

AMMAN, Jordan

The Biden administration’s release of a report implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi met with swift criticism in the United States.

The move was long on talk and lacking in penalties for the prince, said rights activists, a former CIA director, and members of Congress from both parties.

Even when coupled with the recent suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the release of the report was seen as falling short of President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to treat the kingdom, a longtime U.S. ally, as a “pariah.”

But in Saudi Arabia, the actions were seen as going too far. By publicly “embarrassing” the crown prince, the kingdom’s supporters say, President Biden is explicitly undermining and interfering with the already-fraught Saudi line of succession.

With an independent Saudi Arabia that views itself as an equal partner – and which pursues social liberalization for its own internal reasons – a new White House is facing the limits of a values-based foreign policy and its ability to influence an ally’s behavior.

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And with the administration’s clarification this week that it’s seeking a “recalibration” of the Saudi relationship to be in line with American values, it essentially admitted to the difficult balancing act every modern president has faced: to engage with a partner with vast shared strategic interests and few common values.

“Frank message”

The release of the Khashoggi report comes amid a series of moves meant to express the administration’s displeasure with Riyadh.

Last month President Biden stressed he would work only with King Salman, refusing to engage with the crown prince, the de facto ruler, as his predecessor did.

In addition to halting offensive weapons sales, the administration suspended existing arms sales to the kingdom for an intensive review, and an envoy was sent to facilitate talks to end Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

It also barred 76 Saudi individuals involved in anti-dissident operations from entering the U.S., and invoked the Magnitsky Act, which targets human rights offenders, to sanction members of the so-called Rapid Intervention Force, a unit of the Saudi royal guard engaged in counter-dissident operations.

The administration said the moves sent a “frank message” to Saudi leaders setting out new “expectations” for the relationship.

“We seek a partnership that reflects our important work together and our shared interests and priorities, but also one conducted with greater transparency, responsibility, and accord with America’s values,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a press conference.

“The choices that Riyadh makes will have outsized implications for countries in the region and countries beyond the region, including the United States,” he said. “We seek to accomplish a great deal with the Saudis, but we can only address these many important challenges in a partnership with Saudi Arabia that respects America’s values.”

Evan Vucci/AP

President Joe Biden speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington, Feb. 4, 2021. As a candidate, Mr. Biden had promised to make a pariah out of Saudi Arabia over the 2018 murder of dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.

Values and interests

Indeed, State Department and White House officials mentioned American “values” in that context nearly a dozen times.

Traditionally, values factored little in an alliance in which Saudi Arabia guaranteed oil supplies and supported regional U.S. initiatives in return for protection against external threats.

And the White House notes that the shared interests are many: regional stability, ending the war in Yemen, bringing Iran back to the negotiation table, achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the wider Arab word.

Although the U.S. has largely weaned itself off Saudi oil, maintaining influence over the largest producer of fossil fuels and China’s largest supplier of oil remains a geostrategic interest for Washington.

Yet these strategic interests have done little to paper over the gap in values with an autocratic kingdom that has different views on individual rights, a vastly different legal system, and a male custodial system that for decades governed the lives of women.

According to a U.S. diplomatic source with experience in Saudi Arabia and knowledge of the policy debate in Washington, the administration weighed calls to penalize MBS, as the crown prince is known, against Saudi support for regional and global efforts, namely engaging Iran and countering China’s influence.

“To rebuild global leadership, you need partners in each region in the world; although there may be disagreements and we have different views of human rights, the Saudi relationship at the end of the day has been a strong partner,” said the source, who was not authorized to speak to the press on the record.

Independent kingdom

Observers and diplomats say the constraints on U.S. leverage with Saudi Arabia – and the reasons for inflated expectations in Congress and among the American public – are tied to misconceptions over the relationship itself.

Unlike the vast majority of Arab states, Saudi Arabia was never colonized by the West.

Saudi Arabia’s founder, Ibn Saud, came to power through conquest and alliances rather than being selected by European powers to rule a vassal state in their name. 

When the king and President Franklin Roosevelt entered an agreement in the waning days of World War II in 1945, they did so as equal partners, two independent states forging an alliance of mutual interests.

Unlike Egypt or Jordan, Saudi Arabia does not receive U.S. financial aid or in-kind assistance; instead, it often funds U.S.-led ventures in the region. Saudi Arabia pays for American military armaments and protection.

Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters/File

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony at the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 23, 2018.

Although the U.S. has long pushed Saudi Arabia on human rights, it is often done behind closed doors, for cultural and political reasons.

“The Saudis are a proud people who expect to be treated as an equal and they don’t expect to be talked down to,” says David Rundell, former chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh and author of the book “Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads.”

“Saudi Arabia is a country where personal relationships matter a great deal. There are limits to how antagonistic you can be without severely damaging your own interests. We are approaching those limits.”

Social liberalization

The White House has noted recent positive steps from Riyadh: the release of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and two Saudi American nationals; improved access for humanitarian aid to Yemen; and cooperation with newly appointed U.S. envoy Tim Lenderking to end the Yemen war.

The administration says it seeks the release of other activists, institutional reform, and a continuation of Saudi Arabia’s far-reaching social reforms.

Yet the U.S. has had little influence over the dramatic women’s rights advancements and other social reforms taking root in the kingdom, born out of Saudi self-interest.

Since King Salman assumed the throne and elevated his son MBS, they have transformed the kingdom by pursing two at times contradictory goals to cement stability: power consolidation and social liberalization.

Women’s emancipation, opening up the social and entertainment spheres, and neutralizing and marginalizing the orthodox religious establishment, are all viewed by the Saudi rulers as critical to paving the way for the kingdom’s post-oil economy.

While women previously faced several barriers to the workforce, they now work as top newspaper editors and deputy government ministers, as well as in public-facing jobs such as hotel concierges. The right to drive and other legal freedoms were granted in recent years.

These freedoms, along with the opening up of entertainment, sporting events, and the arts, target the hundreds of thousands of Saudis who studied in the West and are making up a new middle and upper-middle class. They also make Saudi Arabia a more desirable destination for foreign investment.

“For years and years, America and the West pressured Saudi Arabia about issues such as women’s driving, about liberalization of society and religious education reform, but nothing happened. This pressure proved ineffective,” says Najah al-Otaibi, a London-based Saudi analyst. “These reforms only happened when Saudis decided it was time to implement them.”

“Saudi Arabia knows its society, its cultural legacy, and its social contract, and it had to decide what was right for their country, what suits their people and what time-frame. They have invited America to engage on certain reforms, but they will not be pressured.”

Power consolidation

The flip side to these changes has been the autocratic, and sometimes ruthless, centralization of power at odds with U.S. values.

King Salman has changed the line of succession and reduced the decision-making process from slow-moving consultations among hundreds of royals, putting that power into the hands of one man, MBS.

This centralization has seen the jailing and forced kidnapping of dissidents and rival princes.

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With delicate diplomacy, not pressure, observers say Washington can hope to influence social reforms that are in line with American values. Yet the U.S. may struggle to push the Saudis to rein in the autocratic measures adopted to push through rapid changes.

“Rather than just penalize, you want to encourage the positive reforms which they have embarked on completely independent of us,” says Mr. Rundell. “We can influence the Saudis on women’s emancipation, tackling corruption, education reform, and religious freedoms. These areas are where our interests coincide and where they can change things.”

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Mark Sappenfield

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