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Post-Khashoggi US-Saudi Arabia Relations Under Biden

SIS professor Shadi Mokhtari answers questions about the future of US-Saudi Arabia relations

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It is said that politics makes strange bedfellows. Since the modern relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia began during and immediately following World War II, two countries that, on the surface, have little in common have made common cause in building and maintaining a close partnership based on oil and a willingness to look the other way when values and domestic policy diverge.

The status quo was threatened in 2018 with the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. However, the policies of then-US president Donald Trump kept the full truth of the Saudi government’s involvement with the killing somewhat under wraps. That all changed in February with the Biden administration’s acknowledgment that approval of the killing took place at the highest levels of the Saudi royal family. In the aftermath, we asked SIS professor Shadi Mokhtari to answer a few questions about the future of US-Saudi relations.

On Feb. 26, the Biden administration released a report that concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. They announced the US would sanction lower-level Saudi officials but not the prince. Why do you think this decision was made, and what was your reaction from a human rights perspective?
Roughly and with some twists, the traditional US-Saudi relationship has been defined by a pact in which the Saudis offered the United States access to oil and air bases in exchange for the US providing the Saudis with limited security guarantees and ally status. The ally status provided foreign legitimation of the royal family’s repressive rule through smiles and handshake photo ops in lavish settings and arms and economic dealings, which sent a message that the Saudi government’s repression (even if referenced from time to time in rhetoric) was not, in the end, of any serious concern for anyone, even the world’s self-proclaimed champions of rights and freedom.
The release of the report and sanctioning of the low-level officials without targeting Mohammed bin Salman represents the Biden administration taking one step away from this traditional foreign policy arrangement with the Saudi royal family while attempting not to fully dissolve it. The release of the report and sanctions of low-level officials pushes the bounds of the relationship but will be highly consequential only if it turns out to be the beginning—and not the end—of the Biden administration’s departure from the traditional terms of the relationship. 
The 76 Saudis named as part of the Khashoggi killing are the first subject to the new “Khashoggi Ban” on anyone in any country deemed responsible for attacking or abusing dissidents or journalists. Can you put in perspective how important this ban is for human rights activists?
The Khashoggi Ban addresses an increasingly serious human rights problem: repressive states reaching outside of their borders to carry out deplorable acts of repression extraterritorially. Saudi Arabia is not alone in committing this violence. Many states, including Iran and—through its own “extraordinary renditions” post-9/11 formulation—the US, have engaged in such practices.
Still, in the end, the Khashoggi Ban only addresses a very small fraction of the overall repression Saudi Arabia and other US allies in the region carry out to maintain their rule. The detention, torture, and suppression of journalists, women’s rights activists, and political dissidents in Saudi Arabia remain an exponentially more serious problem overall. Measures like the Khashoggi Ban address only a slice of the problem and are helpful as long as they do not serve to distract from the root of the repression—a closely allied regime that relies on brutalizing its citizens for its survival. 
Do your think this combination of decisions—punishing some but no consequences for the person at the top—will have an emboldening or a chilling effect on dissidents within Saudi Arabia and abroad?
Since the Khashoggi murder, I have shown my students a video of Donald Trump’s press conference on the Khashoggi murder in which he states repeatedly in rudimentary language and in no uncertain terms that he will not do anything to damage the relationship with the Saudis because the Saudis are buying $110 billion in military equipment from the United States. While watching the video, students typically roll their eyes at the clumsy and naked display of unprincipled US foreign policy. I then ask them how they think Barack Obama would have reacted to the Khashoggi murder, and they work their way towards the conclusion that while Obama likely would have condemned the murder much more eloquently, invoking the language of human rights in rhetoric, his policy likely would not have qualitatively differed from that of Trump’s.
I think most activists in allied Middle Eastern countries are happy to see the Trump administration go, but it is not clear to them if the Biden administration really will be substantially different or just a return to the status quo ante, which was intermittently only marginally better. As one Egyptian activist put it, “as to whether human rights will be at the center of US foreign policy, we will have to wait and see…These are people who were in power… we know they are better (but) that’s a low bar.”
So the Biden administration’s treatment of the Khashoggi murder leaves activists in the same limbo vis-à-vis US foreign policy they have been in for some time. It is, on some level, promising but does not provide a clear answer to the question of whether the US is embarking on a consequential departure from past policies or only reverting to more dramatic rhetorical and cosmetic measures that will fade with time.
Regarding Yemen, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken rescinded the foreign terrorist organization designation of the Houthi rebels, and the Biden administration cut off arms sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia. Also, the president appointed Tim Lenderking as a special envoy to help bring the war in Yemen to a close. What impacts will these decisions have on Yemenis in the short and long term?
Overall, these are all very positive steps in the right direction to hopefully bring to an end an astoundingly unnecessary war, as most wars are. 
Lenderking’s effectiveness and how much political capital is put into pushing for an end to the war and how quickly are still open questions. 
If the arms sales ban becomes more permanent, that is a very significant achievement for Yemeni and allied activists who have been working so hard on this issue since the war began—too long, really. But, hopefully, it may also have broader implications, mainly leading to a significant reformulation of US and other Western and non-Western states’ arms sales practices. 
As a human rights scholar, what would you like to see in a relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia going forward?
No one is advocating the United States should be the benevolent hegemon it has often imagined itself as, bringing democracy, rights, and enlightenment to a Middle East incapable of achieving it on its own. Instead, there must be a recognition and reversal of the active role the US plays in bolstering authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region.
If anything, the 2011 uprisings and local activism, in the face of relentless state repression since, have made clear that many in the Middle East see human rights and political freedoms as universal values while the United States in practice adheres to a more contingent treatment of these values as subordinate to its economic and military interests. A few years ago, a Bahraini activist recounted a conversation he had with a US State Department official he was lobbying. When he pressed for a less accommodating stance towards the Bahraini and Saudi ruling families’ repression, the Obama administration official told him the US was hesitant to “impose its values” on Bahrain. “We will let you know when you are imposing your values,” the activist had replied sarcastically, implying that what the US was doing was only disingenuously undermining its asserted values when applied to non-Americans and undermining the rights claims of significant numbers of his countrymen and women. 
So, there has to be a fundamental change in the nature of the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia. This means forgoing arms sale profits and ultimately dismantling longstanding US military and economic hegemony in the region built upon alliances with Saudi Arabia and other repressive leaders. 
Most Middle East observers would consider it far-fetched that this could actually transpire, but rarely has there been a better opening for fundamental shifts in US foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East. A combination of: the appalling circumstances of the Khashoggi murder; a lull in the types of nationalist discourses and logics that have long perpetuated the most troubling aspects of US foreign policy; Trump laying bare these troubling aspects so dramatically; the possibilities for making connections between the reckoning with domestic denials of rights and dignity commenced in 2020, with the denials of rights and dignity resulting from US foreign policy; and the tremendous efforts of Middle Eastern and American activists who have made previously unimaginable gains in the US Congress on these fronts could combine to produce a seismic shift in US foreign policy in the region.