The Biden administration foreign policy is one in which domestic consideration such as connection to former President Trump or the Republican Party qualifies a certain country as “unfriendly” and therefore “an enemy of sorts.” It is the case of the Biden administration treatment of Saudi Arabia, and potentially of Benjamin Netanyahu’s incoming coalition government.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has identified the Saudis and Netanyahu with the Republican Party. The oil interests of the senior Bush administration and its former Secretary of State James Baker were indeed heavily involved with Saudi Arabian oil. This, however, was a bygone era, when Saudi Arabia was one of the most repressive regimes on earth with brutal punishments such as cutting off limbs for theft, decapitation as punishment for infidelity, and the ill treatment of women in general. Slavery in Saudi Arabia was abolished as late as 1962.
The Saudis under King Salman, and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), have chartered a new and more moderate course. MBS, the effective ruler of the desert kingdom, has restrained the fanatical Wahhabi religious establishment, and is seeking to diversify and modernize the Saudi economy beyond oil. MBS has relaxed the restrictions on women and has been supportive of the Abraham Accords that established a warm peace between Israel and United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.
To the Biden administration, the critical issue is whether the Saudis will be helpful against the Republican attacks on the administration’s energy policy in general and the inflationary pressures the progressives “green energy” has caused. The administration’s restrictions on domestic energy production caused skyrocketing cost at the fuel pump. Therefore, President Biden traveled to Riyadh last July “hat in hand,” to implore the Saudis to increase their oil production. Biden though, vilified MBS and held him responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, at the Saudis consulate in Istanbul. Biden expected Saudi compliance, which did not occur. OPEC voted to cut production by 2 million barrels per day. In October 2022, the White House asked the Saudis to delay the cuts in oil production voted by the OPEC cartel. The Biden administration then accused the Saudis of taking Russia’s side in Moscow’s war with Ukraine.
Saudi Arabia is clearly not a western democracy, and its human rights record is nothing to be proud of. America has nevertheless been protective of the Saudi regime ever since FDR met with Ibn Saud in 1945. America has relied, rightly or wrongly on the Saudis to fuel the western economies. While the Biden administration has accused Riyadh of collusion with Moscow, Biden’s former boss, Barrack Obama colluded with Russia in the Syrian civil war. Obama issued a “red line” to the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, and instead of punishing the Syrian dictator, he submitted to Putin’s interests. The Saudis and the Sunni-Muslim Gulf Arabs asked Obama to demand that Russia stop its bombing of Syrian hospitals and schools which targeted primarily Sunni-Muslims. He replied to them, “Talk to Vladimir Putin yourselves.”
From the progressive point of view led by Obama, the nuclear deal with Iran known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was meant to realign American interests with those of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This had a discernable domestic angle, in that the Republicans maintained a strong relationship with the Sunni-Muslim Arab Gulf states and Israel, and through these relationships America projected its regional influence. Obama sought to change that paradigm, seeking closer ties with Iran, and distancing the US from the Arab Gulf states and Israel. This, despite Iran’s hostility toward the US, and posing an existential threat to Israel and to the Gulf states.
President Joe Biden depends on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in Congress to support his legislative agenda. As a result, he has mortgaged parts of his foreign policy to the whims and wishes of the progressives. Hence, his attitude toward the Saudis, the Gulf Arabs, and Israel (especially once Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government begins to function). Biden, unlike Obama, does not share the latter’s hostility toward Israel. Iranian-born Valerie Jarret, who served as a senior advisor to President Obama, had lots to do with realigning US foreign policy away from the Sunni Arab Gulf states and Israel, and closer to Iran’s Islamic Republic.
When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, he not only pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, but he also switched back to the traditional American alliances in the Middle East. In fact, the Trump administration was able to forge the historic Abraham Accords, which bypassed the Palestinian veto power on Israeli-Arab peace, and among other things, the Trump administration helped create an anti-Iranian defense alliance that has brought together Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE.
In an interview with Jewish National Service (November 20, 2022), former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out that “It’s been crazy to watch as the Biden administration tried to give the Iranians the money to continue their terror regime, to build their missile system and delivery capabilities, and not just the nuclear program, not just enrichment…That is not good for the Iranian people. It is terrible for the nation of Israel. I am glad to see that it has not happened. But not because of the administration but because the Ayatollah has chosen not to re-enter what would be a fantastic deal for them.”
Pompeo added, “The Biden administration’s policy of trying to counterbalance the Sunni Arabs is a mistake. What the US should be focused on is creating friendships between the Arab states and Israel, much like we did with the Abraham Accords, isolating the Iranian regime, they are the bad actors there.”
According to Pompeo, the US Justice Department taking on the case of the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is a “political decision.” In fact, the case of Abu Akleh’s death investigation by Biden’s Justice Department is a direct result of pressure mounted by progressive Democrats in Congress on Biden to launch such an investigation. The progressive Democrats routinely criticize Israel and seek to have the Biden administration distance itself from Israel and adopt a more pro-Palestinian stance. Previously, the Biden administration also announced at the outset of its tenure the opening of the US consulate in Jerusalem. The Trump administration closed the consulate and merged it into the US embassy in Jerusalem. Similarly, the Biden administration encouraged by Obama, promised to restore the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Mission in Washington. All of this is part of the Biden-Obama strategy of realignment in the Middle East region, as well as aiming to reverse much of the work of the Trump Republican administration.