Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has set out a clear marker indicating Saudi Arabia’s new thinking regarding relations with Israel, when he declared in a recent interview that Riyadh does "not look at Israel as an enemy but as a potential ally."
The Saudi king-in-waiting clearly sees his country’s relations with America, similarly, as a two-way street based on pragmatism, an approach that President Joe Biden is now likely to adopt, likewise, in considering a visit to Riyadh in May, despite his pledge as a candidate to make MBS a "pariah."
The war in Ukraine is just the most recent trigger for the return of realpolitik in the triangle of relations between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States.
Gone are the days of tribal loyalties and dogmatic positions, often informed by religious views, in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has seen that Washington no longer has a clear sense of how its own interests depend on the balance of power in the Gulf, so Riyadh must be more flexible. Trusting Russia and Iran to manage a post-America Middle East has yielded results similar to every post-war American disengagement: Washington found its national interests and the world order under severe threat and was forced to come back.
Over the past decade, at least two American presidents downplayed the importance of the Gulf region as a source of energy, but still called Riyadh every few months asking for an increase in oil production in order to decrease global prices.
In an earlier era of American strategic thinking, Washington looked the other way on Riyadh’s human rights violations, given Saudi Arabia’s importance on the global energy market.
This became more difficult thanks to the post-9/11 freedom agenda, and it became even more tenuous in the past decade when some Washington politicians found it politically expedient to pound on Riyadh, taking America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia for granted and calculating that the Saudis have nowhere else to go. MBS has tried to dispel this American misconception.
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Saudi Arabia is not a Jeffersonian democracy, but its repression and autocracy are shared by almost all U.S. allies who are not full democracies, whether in Egypt, Turkey or the Palestinian Authority. The U.S. should indeed nudge its allies to improve their human rights record, but it does not make participatory liberal democracy a condition for alliances, nor does the D.C. critique take account of MBS’ defanging of violent Islamism within the kingdom.
Like the Saudis, the Israelis face two inexorable facts about the superpower structure in the region. The first is that America has been retreating, or planning to retreat from the region, since at least 2005, when reality forced a drastic scaling down in the ambitions of the Iraq War. The second is that there is still no replacement for the U.S. in the security considerations of both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and no replacement for the mutual security guarantees, however informal, of the network of U.S.-aligned states in the region.
At the same time, U.S. policy elites recognize that there is no substitute for their traditional allies in the region. Dissenting voices argued throughout the Bush and Obama years that Turkey and Iran could replace America’s sometimes difficult allies in Cairo, Riyadh, and Jerusalem, but such views have largely faded under the weight of their own implausibility.
Nonetheless, for Israelis and the Saudis, a diversification of the regional portfolio is a strategic and economic imperative. The U.S. will remain the most important military and economic partner for both countries. But in a time of continued American retrenchment, the Israelis and Saudis will have to also engage, however warily, other regional powers such as Turkey and Russia. More than that, they will need to engage each other.
If Washington finds it in its national interest to ally with Riyadh, Saudi will reciprocate. If not, Riyadh will pursue its interests with which ever country is willing to make common cause, a policy that mimics how Israel tries to navigate a tough region in an ever-changing world.
Russia’s war on Ukraine is a human disaster, but the resulting shock, fear, and revulsion are also an opportunity for some overdue sobriety. Voices in Washington that have been blaming America’s global role for creating enemies out of what they characterize as otherwise peaceful autocracies, like Russia and Iran, might have discovered that tyrants will always be tyrants, whether America plays an active role on the world stage or retrenches.
The energy shortage resulting from Russia's war on Ukraine has led Biden back to realpolitik, at least as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned. Biden might be landing in Riyadh soon. This is an opportunity for America to pursue its interests and its principles, rather than swinging from one pole to the other.
It’s not always a simple balancing act. It requires an unwavering focus on the largest threats and open lines of communication with allies on issues of strategy and values, including human rights.
This was, however imperfectly, how America handled its foreign policy in the Cold War. There were some very contested and frustrating compromises in that path too, depending on the severity of the perceived Soviet threat in each region. But the alternatives then, as now, were much worse.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Twitter: @hahussain
Shany Mor is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @ShMMor