Biden should use his visit to rebuild Saudi-American ties, says author Karen Elliott House
NEW YORK CITY: During US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he should take note of the massive social transformation underway in the Kingdom, according to US journalist and media executive Karen Elliott House.
Author of the 2012 book “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Its Past, Its Religion, Its Fault Lines—and Its Future,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, former Wall Street Journal editor, and former president of Dow Jones International , she enjoyed a long relationship with the Kingdom, tracing its evolution from the early 1970s to the present day.
“It’s beyond me how much women and young people have changed,” House told Arab News ahead of Biden’s visit, adding that the Kingdom’s transformation in the last decade alone in terms of individual rights is “breathtaking.” .
“The best thing President Biden can do for himself and for the country, frankly, is to walk down Riyadh Boulevard — anything that exposes him to what’s really going on in the country,” he said. she said, reflecting on the Kingdom’s economic and social reforms. .
“All these men, women and children, relaxed, having fun, instead of the women sitting in one part of the house and the men in another, the young people being separated and separated. They are sitting together at Starbucks, like here (in the US), working on their computers and chatting.
Although largely pessimistic about the prospect of the US president changing his negative attitude towards the Kingdom, House hopes that Biden will at the very least use the opportunity offered by his meetings with Saudi leaders to recalibrate and rebuild the relationship. history between the two nations.
Biden arrived in the Kingdom on Friday for talks with Saudi leaders and other Arab leaders. Observers expect the issue of oil production to be high on the agenda, in light of soaring global energy prices following the war in Ukraine and the resulting Western embargo on Russian oil and gas.
Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern oil producers have been reluctant to increase production at Washington’s behest. Biden’s tour of the region is therefore widely seen as a charm offensive to help mend strained ties with the Kingdom.
“I personally don’t expect much because I think it’s being done for the wrong reasons,” House said.
“Biden is coming for selfish reasons, acting in his own self-interest, trying to improve his sinking position by doing something to secure the oil that will help bring the price down, when his real goal is not to alleviate the national pain.
“I’m not saying he likes America actually suffering, but his biggest main goal is to help himself, not the country. And so it will be, in my opinion, mainly a propaganda trip, not a political trip.
Despite his doubts about the president’s intentions, House believes it is “incredibly important that the United States and Saudi Arabia rebuild security cooperation to contain and deter Iran at a time when Tehran has enough fissile material for a nuclear device, while talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal (more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) continue to falter.
She added: “We should work hard to rebuild a relationship which is absolutely in our interests, because the Iranians are doing very bad things in the region and I believe they have every intention of producing a nuclear weapon. And if something happens there, it will be a potential disaster (not only) for Saudi Arabia but for the whole world.
“We have to be concerned about security all over the world, yes, but in the Middle East and in the South China Sea in particular, because if we are not ready to cooperate with countries like Saudi Arabia, the younger generation Saudi Arabia (Crown Prince) Mohammed bin Salman is much more willing to cooperate with Russia and China.
“Their parents, being anti-Communists, were much less willing to do so. But it’s a different mindset now in Saudi Arabia. We cannot just slap the Saudis and expect them to greet us when we need them.
US-Saudi relations have not always been like this. After US President Franklin D. Roosevelt met King Abdulaziz, known to the West as Ibn Saud, on Valentine’s Day 1945 on the US cruiser USS Quincy in the Suez Canal, a close bond s is developed between their countries.
The two leaders would have made a strong impression on each other. Ibn Saud said that he and FDR were sort of “twins”; they were about the same age, heads of state with heavy responsibilities, farmers at heart and suffering from precarious health.
Despite their differences over the future of Palestine, the friendly atmosphere that prevailed at this meeting on the Great Bitter Lake laid the foundation for a bilateral relationship that has endured for decades despite conflicts and disasters.
Indeed, the personal relationships between successive US presidents and Saudi monarchs have been a determining factor in setting both the tone and substance of the ties between the two countries.
In the decades immediately following World War II, the United States and Saudi Arabia were closely allied in their opposition to the spread of communism and their support for oil price stability and oilfield security and maritime routes.
The nations clashed in defiance of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and during the war to expel the forces of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991.
Nevertheless, the relationship encountered many challenges along the way. It was put to the test during the 1973 oil embargo, and again in 2001 following the September 11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York.
“At that time, the American public was very aware of Saudi Arabia, which most of the time they are not, and angry,” House said. “But on both occasions the US government worked very hard, and quietly, to keep the relationship as good as possible despite public anger. And of course, that is no longer the case today. »
While campaigning for the 2020 presidential election, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state”, in Washington and abroad, to cut off all support for the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen’s war against the Iran-backed Houthis.
He also severed his personal ties with the Saudi heir, Crown Prince Mohammed, following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018, inside the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. In September 2020, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Saudi Arabia issued final sentences for eight people convicted of the murder; five of them were imprisoned for 20 years, one for 10 years and two for seven years.
“President Biden himself personally led the cheer squad against Saudi Arabia, when I don’t think the public is as disturbed by Saudi Arabia as the president is,” House said.
“That’s the big difference, for me, in the ups and downs of the past. These are two big setbacks (the oil embargo and 9/11). But this big down is much worse and it’s not being led by something Saudi Arabia would have done, but something the president chooses to focus on and mainly accuse the crown prince and then tar all the country.
She views Biden’s renunciation of the crown prince as an insult to all Saudis.
“If the Saudi king refused to speak to President Biden, I think that would insult many Americans on some level,” she said. “Conversely, he’s even bigger because (Saudi Arabia) identifies with his leadership more than the Americans.
“So I think it’s been insulting to the Saudi people that the president doesn’t talk to the crown prince, who runs the country on a day-to-day basis.”
House believes Biden made a point of berating Saudi Arabia as a way to endear himself to progressive members of Congress.
“I personally think this is all now part of his effort to appeal to progressives, people who are deeply anti-Saudi,” she said.
“He woos them more than he reflects his own innate or learned opinions. It’s like many other things he does. He has been far more progressive and pro-abortion than he ever was as a senator or vice president.
House is well-placed to talk about changing attitudes in Saudi Arabia, having followed the nation’s development closely during frequent visits to the Kingdom. In particular, she views King Salman’s decision to put the crown prince at the forefront of the nation’s affairs as a watershed moment that Biden would be wise to acknowledge.
Saudi Arabia “was in danger of ending like the old Soviet Union, with one elderly and infirm leader after another, and then sort of disappearing because the old brothers were getting older and older, and how would they bring themselves to make the switch without missing a line?” said Maison.
“And the good news is that King Salman did that. He brought in a young chef. And whatever people think of this young leader, he is very confident, very decisive, he has a vision and, above all, the time to execute it. And that’s what previous Saudi leaders, even King Abdullah, didn’t have. »