Saudi-US military ties continue despite rights reset

Eight months into his presidency, Joe Biden appears inclined to maintain the old alliance with Saudi Arabia.

Former Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, second right, welcomes then-US Vice President Joe Biden upon his arrival in Riyadh in October 2011 [AFP via Getty Images]

During the US presidential election campaign, Joe Biden distanced himself from the course of then-President Donald Trump, who was close with the Saudi royal family and concluded arms deals worth billions without strengthening human rights intentions in the kingdom.

Biden also stated outright that he had no desire to fraternise with “autocrats and dictators”. American values ​​cannot be sold for oil and weapons, he claimed.

Once in office, Biden seemed to stay true to this line. He kept his distance from the Saudis and adopted the tone from the campaign trail.

For instance, Biden had his intelligence service’s report on the grisly murder of exiled critic Jamal Khashoggi published – evidence that directly linked Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). As a result, sanctions against 76 citizens of Saudi Arabia were imposed, and arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia were frozen.

However, after eight months in office, Biden appears inclined to maintain the longstanding partnership despite all the controversy.

On Monday, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan became the highest-ranking Biden administration official to visit Saudi Arabia.

The US State Department also recently approved an agreement on military-support services for Saudi Arabia worth up to $500m.

As announced by the Pentagon, it involves the ongoing maintenance of a wide range of helicopters, including a future fleet of CH-47D Chinook transport aircraft.

Although the deal is still to be presented to Congress, it will undoubtedly be approved. As divided as Washington is politically on Saudi Arabia, a bipartisan approach still exists, even if it does not reflect the general opinion of the American people, Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, told Al Jazeera.

“There, unfortunately, does appear to be longstanding, bipartisan support for the Saudi regime in terms of the White House and Capitol Hill, though polls indicate a large majority of Americans oppose such unconditional military assistance,” Zunes told Al Jazeera.

“Indeed, there is probably no other issue where there is such a huge gap between public opinion and administration policy than US arms transfers and other military support to dictatorial regimes.”

Security rationale?

The renewed commitment raises questions, notably since Biden suggested human rights would be pivotal in his foreign policy. Moreover, there is reasonable doubt the recent military deal is based on Saudi Arabia’s security, as it has widely been suggested.

“It is hard to find much of a security rationale for maintaining helicopter gunships. I am unaware of them ever being deployed for defensive purposes. They seem primarily geared towards offensive military operations in other countries. US-supplied and maintained helicopters have attacked Yemini villages, marketplaces, fishing vessels, and fleeing refugees, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties,” Zunes noted.

Along with unconditional military aid to Israel and Egypt, the proposed maintenance deal underscored that the Biden administration’s claim of supporting human rights was merely rhetoric.

“The US does not care about human rights abuses or war crimes if the victims are Arabs,” added Zunes.

The State Department’s rationale reinforces this notion. It stated the military assistance is justified since Saudi Arabia was “a friendly country that continues to be a force for stability in the Middle East”.

“The people of Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, and other countries would certainly disagree with that. As would colleagues of Jamal Khashoggi and other victims of the Saudi regime,” said Zunes.

Nonetheless, the kingdom has seemingly become cognisant that its reputation has suffered on the world stage, which has forced its hand, Simon Mabon, professor of international politics at Lancaster University, told Al Jazeera.

“As a consequence of vocal condemnation, the kingdom has begun to re-evaluate relationships with longstanding allies, notably the US, and has sought to double down on existing processes of societal transformation in line with Vision2030. There is an acknowledgement of the need to be seen by international donors, in particular, in a positive light, given the need for vast financial investment,” he said.

‘Alternative sources of security’

So far, Saudi Arabia’s position in the region has largely remained the same, yet what has changed is its ability to rely on the US as a security guarantor entirely.

The impact of this was seen when Saudi Arabia recently engaged in talks with arch-enemy Iran.

“The current situation has prompted Saudi Arabia to engage in diplomatic talks with its longtime rival Iran and to reflect on alternative sources of security beyond its traditional partners,” Mabon noted.

As so often, with the US refocusing its objectives, other actors are inclined to step up if the US were indeed to withdraw its support for the kingdom further. China, for instance, would be happy to fill any void left by Washington – even though Beijing’s interests are somewhat clearly defined.

“The rising influence of China on regional politics provides MBS with alternatives, in the form of arms sales and possible regional security architecture, but a desire for economic growth drives Beijing’s interests; conflict and instability are not in their interest,” Mabon said.

As such, and given that China, in particular, has become the aforementioned new objective, Biden finds himself in a position in which he seeks to maintain his distance from MBS without alienating and fully isolating the kingdom.

This is all the more important since Saudi Arabia’s recent talks with Iran are of particular interest to the region. The Abraham Accords was an attempt to recalibrate regional order against Iran in the face of a possible US withdrawal, but Saudi Arabia’s lack of formal involvement in this agreement highlights structural impediments the kingdom still faces.

“The talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran are driven by pragmatism. Both Riyadh and Tehran face financial pressures at home, and costly adventures across the region are not as palatable as they once may have been, particularly in Iran,” said Mabon.

“A range of track-two processes have been ongoing for years, seeking to improve relations, but the apparent US withdrawal has seemingly prompted the kingdom to realise that it needs to have a regional security agreement comprised of those states in the region, a point long argued by Iran.”

‘No longer a blank cheque’

Analysts say Washington’s retreat has reinforced the idea that, while both Saudi Arabia and Iran aspire to leadership over both the region and the Islamic world, there is a general acceptance that hegemony is not possible.

“That acknowledgement that both need to work alongside – if not with – each other is important,” Mabon noted.

However, Washington’s role moving forward will remain pivotal to Saudi Arabia’s scramble to reposition itself.

This is why, if the US were serious about a paradigm shift towards Saudi Arabia and significantly scales back its support, the message would be decisive.

“It would send a message that the United States will no longer provide a blank cheque for Saudi aggression. It would make clear that Washington will no longer tolerate Saudi war crimes in Yemen, its invasion of Bahrain, its threats again Qatar, its brutal repression at home, its murder of dissident journalists overseas, or other acts of aggression,” said Zunes.

Conversely, going through with the helicopter maintenance deal signals the US has no problems with such behaviour, and Saudi Arabia could continue to get away with this sort of thing without negative consequences, he added.

Source: Al Jazeera