Could Saudi Arabia Help Save Biden’s Flailing Presidency?
Despite President Joe Biden’s intent to reduce America’s focus on the Middle East and the war on terror, an enormous amount of his administration’s foreign policy bandwidth during its first year was consumed by the region’s problems—from restraining Iran’s nuclear program and ending Yemen’s civil war to leaving Afghanistan. Conspicuously absent from the administration’s early priority list, however, was expanding the Abraham Accords, the flurry of peace deals that Donald Trump forged between Israel and four Arab states in the final months of his presidency. But with so many of Biden’s first-year initiatives now faltering or—as in Afghanistan—ending in outright debacle, his administration would be wise to turn its attention to the accords as a potential success story in an otherwise bleak foreign policy landscape.
As a new report from the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) spells out, the accords have created a set of historic opportunities for the United States: First, to resolve the seven-decade-old conflict between Israel and the majority of Arab states. Second, to establish a new U.S.-led security architecture in the Middle East that brings Washington’s most important partners together for the first time in an effective coalition to strengthen stability and security in a region still crucial to U.S. interests. And third, to get those friends to carry more of the burden for maintaining order in their own neighborhood, allowing the United States to focus greater resources on a rising China and revanchist Russia.
Though barely a year old, the extraordinary promise of the accords has already been on full display. Relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Morocco in terms of trade, investment, tourism, and even defense cooperation have reached unprecedented heights. Historic visits last week to the UAE by Israel’s president and to Bahrain by its defense minister were just the latest manifestation of the sea-change now underway in the region’s geopolitics.
That said, nothing would do more to ensure the accords reach their full potential than widening the circle of peace to include Saudi Arabia. The reasons aren’t hard to divine. The Saudis are the world’s richest and most influential Arab state. They’re the largest exporter of oil on the planet and the global economy’s swing producer. Perhaps most importantly, when it comes to matters relating to Israel, the kingdom is the birthplace of the Islamic faith and home to its two holiest mosques. That means its soft-power sway extends well beyond the Middle East to Muslim-majority countries around the world. Get Riyadh to make peace with Israel and Washington will have unlocked the door to a major alignment in international politics that favors U.S. interests.
It’s one of the Middle East’s worst-kept secrets that for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known as MBS), normalizing relations with Israel is not a matter of if, but when. Since becoming heir apparent in 2017 to his ailing father, King Salman, he’s told foreign visitors that fully developing relations with Israel would have a transformative impact not only on the prosperity and security of his country, but the entire region. In 2020, the Saudis played a pivotal role in making the Abraham Accords a reality by encouraging Bahrain to make peace and immediately granting overflight rights to facilitate travel between Israel and its new Gulf partners.
So what’s holding MBS back? Some reports suggest that his father, the king, is reluctant to greenlight normalization until there is greater progress on the Palestinian question. MBS has privately told others that he’s waiting until internal polling shows greater support for peace among the Saudi public.
There no doubt are elements of truth to all that. But it’s also the case that, today, perhaps the single greatest obstacle to normalization is the severe strains in the kingdom’s relationship with its most important ally, the United States. Biden entered office saying he would treat the Saudis like “the pariah they are” and make MBS “pay the price” for his role in the horrific 2018 murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Among his first acts as president: suspending arms sales to Riyadh, making public an intelligence report alleging MBS ordered Khashoggi’s death, and announcing that he would have no contact with the crown prince—despite the reality that MBS is the kingdom’s day-to-day decision maker and natural interlocutor for every other foreign head of state.
The reality is that, starting with Egypt in 1979, no Arab country has made peace with Israel without the assurance that its relations with the United States would be significantly upgraded. It’s a basic tenet of Arab-Israeli diplomacy. The Saudis will be no different.
When Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, went to see MBS in Riyadh last September, he raised the issue of normalization. MBS reportedly responded that he was ready to establish ties with Israel, but that it would be difficult to take the necessary risks for peace while U.S.-Saudi relations were at such a low ebb. In essence, to normalize relations with Israel, MBS was saying that he first needs to see the Biden administration normalize its relations with him.
What would that entail? It’s hard to know for sure, but the bottom line is that Biden would need to start treating MBS less like a murderer and more like the leader of a key strategic partner who is likely to be running one of the world’s most pivotal countries for the next half century. That means establishing a direct line of communication with him, meeting him on the sidelines of international summits, resuming most arms sales to address the kingdom’s legitimate defense needs, and strongly backing MBS’s historic program of economic and social reform, known as Vision 2030.
What it doesn’t mean is whitewashing the Khashoggi murder the way that Trump did. On the contrary, Biden ought to raise the issue in his first conversation with MBS and demand assurances that nothing like it will ever happen again.
No one should underestimate how politically difficult it would be for Biden to bring MBS in from the cold. For many in Congress, particularly in Biden’s own party, the thought is anathema. The backlash could be fierce.
But the strategic payoff for U.S. interests would be enormous. As big an impact as the Abraham Accords have already had, bringing Saudi Arabia into the process would be a diplomatic triumph on a whole different scale, an inflection point in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that would fundamentally change the geopolitics of the Middle East forever. Moreover, normalization and bringing Saudi Arabia in from the cold doesn’t mean abandoning any push for human rights and more responsible behavior by MBS. In fact, one can argue that normalization and integration of the kingdom into a U.S. organized regional order will increase the ability of American officials to nudge MBS in the right direction.
China could never broker that deal. Neither could Russia. Only America can. It’s within Biden’s grasp—if he’s prepared to take the slings and arrows that will inevitably come for trying to move the U.S.-Saudi relationship past the Khashoggi tragedy and into the history books. It’s a calculated gamble, for sure, but one that would redound incalculably not only to the country’s long-term interests, but to Biden’s personal stature as an international statesman of the first order as well. For a flailing presidency staring a midterm electoral disaster straight in the face, it may be a risk well worth taking.
John Hannah is senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) and former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. He was co-drafter of JINSA’s recent Abraham Accords Task Force report, “A Stronger and Wider Peace: A U.S. Strategy for Advancing the Abraham Accords.”
Eric S. Edelman is counselor at JINSA and a member of its Abraham Accords Task Force. He was U.S. ambassador to Finland (1998-2001), ambassador to Turkey (2003-2005), and undersecretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009.
Jonathan Ruhe is JINSA’s director of foreign policy and co-drafter of its recent Abraham Accords Task Force report.
Originally published in The Dispatch.