Will Biden Waste an Opportunity to Steer Saudi Arabia in the Right Direction?

It took Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a full 24 hours to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden on his victory. The delay shouldn’t come as a surprise; the crown prince and de facto ruler of the Kingdom no doubt hoped—like Donald Trump—that some last-minute change would overturn the results. Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, have made no secret of their antipathy toward the Saudi regime. But turning on Saudi Arabia would be a mistake, as it would mean abandoning an opportunity to build on the new Middle East ushered in by the Trump administration.

The U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia has weathered numerous storms since it began on Valentine’s Day of 1945 with a secret meeting between FDR and Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. It has survived a Saudi-led oil embargo, official Saudi sponsorship of Salafi Islam for decades, and championship of the Arab boycott of Israel that targeted U.S. companies; not to mention an absolutist Islamist monarchy with all that entails. In exchange, the kingdom supported the United States in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, helped manage oil prices as OPEC’s most important swing producer, and stood with the United States as it contended with twin threats from Iran and Iraq, and then, after 9/11, against al Qaeda. Indeed, over the last two decades, the kingdom has rejected much that defined its past. Despite that progress, however, the relationship began to go south during the Obama administration.

Team Obama’s rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran has been well documented. While the Iran deal delivered with pride by the Obama White House (and accepted under duress by congressional Democrats) was sold as a boon to the Middle East—theoretically denying Tehran a pathway to nuclear weapons and shifting the hardliner/moderate balance within Iran—the underlying vision of a Pax Iranica for the region was both in theory and practice unacceptable to both Israel and Sunni Arabs. Worse still, it cemented in place a bizarre Republican-Democrat divide in Washington, with the Democrats becoming the party of (the) Iran (deal), and the GOP siding with Israel and the Sunnis.

Democrats’ all-encompassing anti-Trump worldview only exacerbated the partisan anger over what should be U.S. Middle East policy. Democrats who had opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) found themselves required to condemn Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and explain away Iran’s violations of its nuclear commitments. Odder still were the contortions required to downplay or outright condemn Israel’s new peace with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

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