US-Saudi Relations: Between Reality and Wishful Thinking

US-Saudi Relations: Between Reality and Wishful Thinking

Al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia, November 21

Many talk these days, often out of wishful thinking, about a major shift in Saudi-American relations during the term of President-elect Joe Biden, suggesting that relations between Washington and Riyadh will witness a deterioration, perhaps even worse than during the era of former President Barack Obama. They cite the fact that Biden worked under Obama and held beliefs that were similar to those of his former boss, to whom he’s still immensely close. They also remind us that several of the most prominent members of Obama’s administration – including notable Iranian expats who advised Obama on the Iranian issue – are likely to return to a Biden White House. Despite these doomsday scenarios, I believe with confidence that the relationship will remain largely unchanged. Surely, they won’t be as close as they were during the Trump era for a wide host of reasons, including, for example, the fact that President Trump’s first foreign visit after stepping into office was to Riyadh. Under Trump, the bilateral relationship flourished on all fronts, including economic, security and political coordination. However, if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, we quickly understand that the historical relations between Riyadh and Washington have been based on common interests and shared values for more than seven decades. A Biden Administration would not be an exception to this rule. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia isn’t a peripheral state. It has global economic and political weight, and it is the most prominent exporter of energy in the world. Spiritually and religiously, the kingdom holds monumental weight in the Muslim world. In addition, Riyadh has developed a unique model in combating terrorism by drying up terror groups’ intellectual and financial resources. It is also the largest international contributor to the United Nations counterterrorism program. Further, the United States is aware of Saudi Arabia’s weight in terms of oil prices around the world, and we all remember the message of the American shale oil companies to Trump in which they requested that he speak to Saudi Arabia to work to raise oil prices, especially since the cost of extracting shale oil is many times the cost of extracting liquid oil. Accordingly, the impact of Saudi Arabia’s moves on the US domestic economy becomes clear. Most importantly, the policies and changes that took place in the region over the course of the past few years, including developments in Arab-Israeli relations, will make it impossible to turn back the clock. Many regional issues that once seemed controversial are now crystal clear. Domestically, Riyadh has passed major reforms over the past five years, including on issues such as women’s rights, for which Democrats have been calling. In sum, Riyadh has sufficient capacity to defend its interests and build good relations with the next US administration, as was the case with most previous administrations. Therefore, I do not expect a major shift in Saudi-American relations during the Biden era, which will be for only four years. A Biden Administration is more likely to be busy dealing with internal issues, including the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the US economy. Regarding Iran, the new administration might seek to reach a new nuclear agreement but it will not be reached without input from Washington’s Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, and Biden’s position on hostile Iranian behavior and Tehran’s missile program is strongly consistent with the Saudi position. We must always remember that campaign statements should not be taken too seriously, as they are primarily made to convince voters. The best example of this might be President Trump’s famous statements against the kingdom on the 2016 election trail, which quickly changed after his arrival at the White House. – Muhammad Al-Silmi (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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