Bashing Saudi Arabia during a presidential election season is almost a tradition in the United States, and President Biden made no exception. Emboldened by domestic outrage over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, Mr. Biden went further than his predecessors by calling Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state. That was miscalculated.
With the war in Ukraine sending energy prices higher and China cementing more alliances in the Middle East, Mr. Biden is traveling thousands of miles to attempt to repair a relationship that has reached a nadir in its 80-year history — arguably even worse than after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Mr. Biden sought to justify his visit to Saudi Arabia this week in a Washington Post opinion essay, saying his aim was to “reorient,” not “rupture,” relations. Yet no justification for his visit to the kingdom this week can erase the truth: It is a defeat for Mr. Biden and a personal and political triumph for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or M.B.S., as he is popularly known. But it does not have to be a defeat for the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
A change in Mr. Biden’s attitude toward Prince Mohammed will undoubtedly generate some good will with the Saudi leadership. The question is: What will Mr. Biden choose to make of this renewed opportunity to reset the relationship?
The United States needs Saudi Arabia: The kingdom remains the oil market’s major swing producer and is the main buyer of U.S. arms globally. By virtue of geopolitics and economics, Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the United States is consequential when it comes to Washington’s efforts to counter Iran, end the war in Yemen and normalize Israel’s relations with the Arab world, as well as limit Russia’s and China’s influence in the region. All of this was true before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended global oil markets and sent gasoline prices skyrocketing in the United States and Europe.
Mr. Biden’s posture — turning a tense relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia into a personal duel with Prince Mohammed — was always going to be short-lived, especially as world events intervened. This became evident over the past six months as the Biden administration suffered snub after snub, culminating in Prince Mohammed’s rebuffing U.S. demands to explicitly and actively side with the United States after Russia invaded Ukraine.
So the Biden administration had to come up with a solution to its Saudi problem, especially in a critical election year, as Mr. Biden’s job approval ratings have dropped and gas prices have soared.
The Biden administration has shied away from previewing desired results for this meeting. But returning home with only vague pledges on oil and Israel — and no concrete concessions from Saudi Arabia on human rights — would be a defeat not just for Mr. Biden but for the United States. Realpolitik policymakers like to wave away human rights as having any place in pragmatic policymaking, but there is an opportunity for Mr. Biden to make human rights part of a revamped strategy with Saudi Arabia that the kingdom could accept, even if not enthusiastically.
Saudi Arabia will not become a democracy soon. But the United States can still engage with the monarchy constructively to make some gains on human rights, defend against authoritarianism and promote regional integration.
The United States needs to demonstrate consistency in support of its values alongside its strategic goals. It is easy for Saudi leaders to dismiss Mr. Biden’s human rights rhetoric if the killing of the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, which the State Department said was likely caused by gunfire from Israel Defense Forces positions, generates nothing like the official outrage over the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. The absence of a smoking gun didn’t stop the United States from investigating Saudi conduct and publicly announcing its findings to demonstrate a commitment to freedom of the press. Failing to raise the issue of Ms. Abu Akleh’s death during Mr. Biden’s visit to Israel would strengthen Saudi charges that U.S. commitment to its values is entirely conditional.
The United States should push for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia only if it can guarantee that the Saudi government won’t suppress Saudi voices opposed to normalization. And the United States must voice its support for Palestinians’ rights as much as it supports the Israelis’. If and when normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel happens, it shouldn’t be used to erase the human rights violations of both governments.
Saudi Arabia is substantially investing in the transformation of its digital infrastructure, which has become essential to the success of Vision 2030, Prince Mohammed’s plan to overhaul the economy — and his legacy. At the same time, the country has become a case study in digital authoritarianism. The government benefits from its citizens’ exceptionally high connectivity to promote disinformation and propaganda, collect data on and deploy spyware against dissidents, and hack and trace its enemies.
The United States is already blacklisting firms that provide digital repression tools to Saudi Arabia, such as the Israeli NSO Group. But it should also find ways to collaborate with Saudi Arabia on the institutional and legal frameworks that regulate the technological environment in the kingdom. For instance, the United States can capitalize on Saudi Arabia’s craving for U.S. technology by linking U.S. digital support and investments to the adoption of safeguards that protect digital human rights and privacy.
The Biden administration also needs to continue targeting Saudi enablers of authoritarian behavior through coercive diplomacy. The Khashoggi ban, a visa restriction policy instituted by the State Department in response to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, is a good start that should continue. Individuals acting on behalf of the Saudi government who are involved in the repression of Saudi nationals at home and abroad must pay a price.
Similarly, the regulation of relevant Saudi intelligence and paramilitary training must continue. In 2019, The Washington Post revealed that the State Department had refused a proposal to train the Saudi intelligence service because of insufficient safeguards by the Saudis to prevent lawless operations against political dissidents. To go further, the United States could apply more scrutiny to training that former military and law enforcement officials offer the kingdom privately.
By making space for values in the bilateral relationship, Saudi leaders would be helping themselves. Without an improved values record, Saudi Arabia will continue to face obstacles from Congress and the U.S. government that prevent it from obtaining the technology and military systems it wants and needs.
The same goes for business. Even if Mr. Khashoggi’s killing hadn’t driven American investors away, the Saudi government isn’t reaching the foreign direct investment levels that it needs to meet Vision 2030’s objectives. Despite progress, the weakness of the rule of law and lack of participatory decision making in the kingdom require investors to think twice and have complicated existing relationships.
For the United States, Saudi business is crucial if it wants to outcompete China in the Middle East. It also gives the United States leverage in the success of Vision 2030.
None of these paths are easy to take. They require both Saudi and American leaders to plan strategically and not according to election dates and oil prices. They also require Mr. Biden to deliver a clear message: For a long time, Saudi leaders counted on U.S. values always coming second to U.S. interests. But they should also realize that having a minimum of shared values builds more consequential relationships than oil and arms.