The truth about what Biden can — and can’t — achieve with Saudi Arabia



In an April 2022 interview with journalist Graeme Wood, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was asked if President Biden misunderstood something about him. Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader replied, “I just don’t care.” He suggested that Biden could not alienate the Saudis because it would undermine the president’s position in the Middle East. So Mohammed shrugged and seemed to move on.

To some extent, Mohammed is right. Biden lacks significant geopolitical leverage over the Saudis. The president needs the crown prince to increase oil production to reduce gas prices at home and ignore overtures from China and Russia. Still, Mohammed cannot completely ignore Biden, as the protection offered by the US military is still crucial for Saudi Arabia as it sees threats from Tehran, such as the ongoing insurgency by the Iran-backed Houthis. outside of Yemen, which has yet to be officially resolved. .

Debates over whether Biden should take a rhetorically tough line against Saudi human rights abuses or avoid Mohammed altogether matter far less than how he uses limited US influence. Nothing Biden does will immediately improve the Saudi stance on human rights. But history indicates that exercising your leverage will lead to progress on this front over time.

Nothing makes this clearer than how President John F. Kennedy exercised Saudi security needs to push Crown Prince Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud to abolish slavery. The episode illustrates the difficulty of enforcing natural rights throughout the kingdom. He also revealed that it is not charisma, charm, or outspoken language that produces change in this regard, but rather the shrewd use of American geopolitical influence.

The situation Kennedy faced worsened when a civil war broke out in Yemen in 1962. On September 26, young nationalist revolutionary Colonel Abdullah Sallal forced the Yemeni monarch, Imam Muhammad al-Badr, to leave the palace of Dar al-Bashair. Many saw the move as part of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regional campaign to overthrow royalist regimes and spread Arab nationalism. Disturbing reports soon reached Washington that Sallal and his allies had posted “severed heads” of the fallen Iman’s family along the palace walls.

The fall of the Yemeni monarchy – combined with these grisly rumors – has sown fear in the Saudi ruling family. The Saudi royal family feared they were next. Luckily, just nine days after the fall of the Yemeni monarch, Faisal arrived at the White House for a previously scheduled meeting with Kennedy – the first meeting between the two leaders. The Saudi crown prince came hoping to gain military support for his regime.

This desire gave Kennedy leverage, and he prepared to exercise it. At their October 5 meeting, Kennedy pushed for “modernization and reform.” National Security Council member Robert Komer had made it clear to Kennedy that “deliberate and controlled internal reform is the best antidote to Nasserism,” a message the president emphasized throughout the meeting with Faisal. Kennedy surmised that the cornerstone of this new phase of the strategic relationship between Washington and Riyadh would depend on the Saudi government’s commitment to these efforts, especially those related to ending slavery in the kingdom.

Regional and international actors had criticized and ridiculed the Saudis since the early 1950s for their continuing links to slavery. The British Anti-Slavery Society had used several United Nations committees to raise international interest in this issue. And the Saud family’s continued enslavement of thousands was a handy weapon deployed by its Cold War Arab adversaries – notably Nasser, who gave sanctuary to Saudi dissidents who had spoken out against slavery, such as Nasir. al-Said and Prince Talal. These developments allowed Kennedy to sell the abolition of slavery not only as something the United States wanted, but also as something good for Saudi security.

Kennedy’s speech was simple: reform your kingdom and cut off bad press, plus get American aid.

After lunch, the two retired to the White House residence to discuss improving US-Saudi relations.

During their meeting, Kennedy proposed several initiatives to strengthen ties and propel Saudi Arabia along the path to modernization, including a “civic action” program, economic assistance, continuation of the training mission US military (USMTM) – and, most importantly, the abolition of slavery.

The civic action program would help foster “Saudi progress”. Earlier in the year, a US economic survey team concluded that the Saudi government did not need capital but rather technical assistance from private and public agencies to support a development program. Kennedy lobbied the crown prince to help him implement this emerging development agenda, which he promised would help ease the kingdom’s economic woes.

The program also offered another benefit to the kingdom: a politically acceptable way to maintain a US military presence in the region. This would demonstrate Kennedy’s willingness to deploy troops to the kingdom at a “psychologically critical time”, as it would send an unequivocal message to potential opponents of the Saudi government.

But the Saudi government could argue that this presence was for building roads, not for militarism or interfering with Saudi sovereignty. This was significant because a year earlier King Saud bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud had publicly criticized the US presence in Saudi Arabia to appease regional Arab nationalist grievances.

But for the United States to offer that support and build a closer relationship with Faisal, slavery had to end. Kennedy repeatedly told Saudi leaders that internal change was the best protection against external threats, especially Nasserism, and that outlawing slavery was an essential first step.

Faisal promised Kennedy that he would work to improve the Saudi image at home and abroad. Similarly, at the end of his private session with Kennedy, the Crown Prince told his interpreter, Isa K. Sabbagh, “I started to feel my lungs again,” meaning the pressure had been released after a better understanding of US global commitments. Although Faisal didn’t get all the assurances he wanted, he left knowing he had a friend in Washington.

Likewise, according to Parker T. Hart, the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time, “Kennedy got something from Faisal that was very important. It was a program of changes in the government of his country, which were badly needed and, in particular, the prohibition of slavery.

Less than a month later, Faisal announced the abolition of slavery. This proclamation appeased human rights activists from London to Lebanon (many of whom had worked for decades for this outcome).

Kennedy won this rare human rights victory in Saudi Arabia through his geopolitical influence. Faisal must have cared what Kennedy thought – the reign of the Saud family was at stake.

Biden doesn’t have as much clout as Kennedy in 1962, but Iran-backed Houthi rebels have created a healthy dose of anxiety for the Saud family. As the seven-year conflict is frozen thanks to a UN-brokered truce, the current Saudi crown prince certainly cannot forget that in March Washington approved the sale of “missiles and a defense system anti-ballistic … including 280 air-to-air missiles”. missiles” in Saudi Arabia after Houthi drone strikes blew up six sites in the kingdom, including oil sites. Mohammed may not feel the same urgency and fear as Faisal did in 1962, but he still has need US military aid.

Progress on human rights is rarely rapid in Saudi Arabia. But history shows that progress can be made. Unlike many other presidents, Biden has been consistent in his human rights stance toward Saudis. However, we must remain realistic. The Crown Prince will not accept responsibility for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yet Biden can emulate Kennedy in reminding the crown prince that the vital security assistance the United States continues to provide to the Saudis – coupled with increasing human rights and fundamental freedoms –” promotes stability and strengthens [Saudi] national security.” In other words, increasing human rights will help achieve two of Saudi Arabia’s goals: getting US aid more easily and improving the kingdom’s global image.


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