Foreign policy in the Middle looks incredibly incoherent under the Biden administration.
While Biden talked tough on the campaign trail by labeling Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state and even hinted at potentially sanctioning the ambitious leader Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) for his alleged role in the murder of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi, his administration ended up taking a more moderate approach.
The Biden administration ended up imposing sanctions on lower-level officials of the Saudi government and the Rapid Intervention Force, the Crown Prince’s bodyguard corps. Further, it applied a visa restriction policy on 76 Saudi nationals who have been suspected of attacking activists, dissidents, and journalists. Nonetheless, the Biden administration stopped short of sanctioning MBS.
Though as James Durso of Oilprice.com observed, “Saudi Arabia recently achieved the distinction of joining Turkey as an American ally subject to sanctions.” Turkey was previously sanctioned by the Trump administration for purchasing an S-400 Russian missile system, which is generally viewed as a threat to the F-35 weapons platform. We could be witnessing the beginning of a trend of the U.S. starting to discard previous strategic partnerships due to how dominant its liberal foreign policy has become. For liberals, all countries have to be remade in the U.S.’s image and those that deviate get punished.
The Saudi foreign ministry blasted the CIA’s report and declared that the Saudi government “categorically rejects the abusive and incorrect conclusions” and stood behind the “enduring partnership” that exists between the kingdom and the U.S.
Durso noted an interesting dynamic between the Chinese and the Saudis. Saudi Arabia is now China’s largest supplier of oil, with it receiving north of 2 million barrels of oil daily from the Middle Eastern country. Saudi Arabia took a surprising stance in favor of China’s policy towards its Muslim Uighur population, which has generally received international condemnation from Western countries.
On the military front, the Saudis bought roughly 50 Chinese CSS-2 ballistic missiles in 1986. Additionally, Saudi Arabia provided the largest amount of donor aid after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and even offered to provide aid after the Wuhan virus outbreak. There have also been rumors of China even trying to help Saudi Arabia develop its nuclear program, which could potentially raise eyebrows among the likes of the U.S. and Israel.
Several foreign policy experts describe the Saudi-Chinese relationship as “functional, but not strategic”, however the nature of this relation could change if the U.S. gets overzealous in its efforts to punish the Saudis.
China has already built strong economic ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia with regards to its Belt and Road Initiative. Although these countries are intense rivals, China seeks to cover all its bases and trade with everyone.
Durso even suggested another scenario that could take place should the U.S. get overzealous in its efforts to pursue some kind of regime change in Saudi Arabia. Namely, a growing Saudi reliance on the Chinese for military supplies:
Aside from moving closer to China politically and economically, Saudi Arabia may diversify its weapons suppliers and China is the kind of no-conditions seller every buyer wants. And the kingdom may start to “make” instead of “buy” by growing the capability of Saudi Arabian Military Industries so it is less vulnerable to a parts cutoff by the U.S.
One curious set of news was how Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates backed Saudi Arabia during the Khashoggi drama. Indeed, many of these countries at times have second thoughts about the U.S., which likely has propelled them to put feelers out for suitable alternatives as patrons.
China largely fits the bill as an alternative due to it not being obsessed with regime change and willingness to engage with countries regardless of the kind of governments they’re involved with. This makes many Middle Eastern countries sleep well at night, especially after seeing the U.S. heavily promote the Arab Spring under the administration of Barack Obama.
In sum, the U.S. should not coddle Saudi Arabia, nor should it take punitive measures that could potentially destabilize the country. Heavy-handed policies could have unintended consequences such as motivating Saudi Arabia to slide into China’s fold and further empower an anti-American geopolitical bloc.