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Will Biden Punish the Saudi Pariah or Embrace a Saudi Partner

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Susan Walsh/AP Photo

When campaigning for president, Joe Biden made a bold foreign policy declaration that he was going to make the Saudis "pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” adding that there’s “very little socially redeeming value in the present government.”


It seemed an odd statement at the time, not one that would really bring votes, but definitely as one of the areas in which he campaigned to have his policies opposite of President Trump who had engaged the Saudis closely, made Saudi Arabia the first country he visited as president, and about whose role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi he equivocated. 

Indeed, it was the murder of Khashoggi to which Biden was responding and which, until now, in his presidency, has governed his policy and public relations with the Saudis, particularly the Crown Prince, MBZ, who is alleged to have had a direct role in the murder. Biden went so far as to pledge to punish the Saudis over Khashoggi's murder. 

Biden’s comments during the campaign came to light recently as news of his trip to Saudi Arabia in July was released.  It’s not entirely clear what he will or won’t be doing in Saudi Arabia, or who he will, or won’t meet with.  Clearly, he has to walk back his declarative statements about the Saudis being a pariah. But whether he’ll have a formal face to face meeting with the Saudi King or Crown Prince, or maybe just say hi and give a fist bump in passing at an international summit that will be hosted there, remains unclear.  

It's odd that the President of the United States would NOT have a formal meeting with the Saudi leadership, especially if he’s in their country.  If he doesn’t, the question is whether it’s because Biden can’t walk back all the way about punishing the Saudi “pariah” state, and that would look bad for him. Or, have the Saudis deemed Biden irrelevant and because of his statements and actions to embolden Iran (and other related issues), don’t want to pay him the respect to have such a meeting.  It could be both, an awkward and uneasy diplomatic standoff of sorts where they are in the same room, but don’t actually have a face-to-face meeting. 


Why is Biden headed to Saudi Arabia anyway? A few weeks ago, Biden declared that it was about Israel and Israel’s security, suggesting that two years after the signing of the Abraham Accords, he’s on board to widen that and bring the Saudis into formal peace with Israel. That would be nice. It would also be nice if he went there with a plan to partner with Israel, the Saudis, and other Arab states to confront and disarm Iran, not coddling them, begging for them to rejoin a nuclear agreement that would - as Biden’s former boss President Obama’s 2015 agreement did –just pave the way to Iran getting a nuclear weapon. That can has been kicked down the road far enough. 

But as soon as he was quoted that the trip was only about Israel and its interests, my immediate reaction was “come on man.” That’s a load of nonsense.  

As Biden lands in Saudi Arabia, gas prices in the US will have continued to spiral out of control, possibly reaching an average of six dollars a gallon. To pretend that this trip has nothing to do with gas prices and oil production (from the president who has been as hostile to fossil fuels as he has to the Saudi monarchy), makes me think that coming to the Saudis to get their help with energy, after berating them as pariahs who need to be punished, just won’t look good. 


But then again, why would any traditional democratic voters particularly care about Jamal Khashoggi’s murder as influencing foreign policy if making nice could bring gas prices down. 

My question is deeper. As much as Biden has spent the first year and a half of his presidency berating the Saudis, he’s no less been running after a nuclear deal with Iran. There are numerous instances that indicate Biden’s policy is a deal at any cost, rather than actually stopping Iran from getting a weapon. Yes, they are mutually exclusive, and it doesn’t take an Iranian nuclear scientist to know that. Iran may agree to a deal that slows down or even navigates their process to a nuclear weapon, something that they have aggressively pursued while lying through previous negotiations, and following the 2015 agreement, and to which the have become dangerously closer. 

An Iranian nuke would be bad for Israel, for sure. But it would be bad for the Saudis and the rest of the Sunni Arab world, and lead to a nuclear arms race in the middle east. 

Biden noted that when he was murdered, Khashoggi was in the US on a visa. A crime is a crime and a bloody murder like that which took place with Khashoggi is horrific and unspeakable. That he was a journalist adds a layer because we always want to protect journalists. As Khashoggi was not an American citizen, and was not murdered in the US, makes it odd that this is a battle Biden wants to fight, or a hill he wants to die on.  


When Biden spoke of “very little socially redeeming value in the present (Saudi) government,” did he consider for a moment that there are many countries with which the US does engage and maintain relations, and which are MUCH worse? Iran is obvious. If you’re against the regime and its extremist Islamic ideology, you’re subject to torture and murder. Recently, the Palestinian Authority arrested a journalist who was saying things against the regime, and whose security forces killed another just months earlier. Turkey is a serial persecutor of journalists and Kurds and others.  

The list could go on and on. But foreign policy is not all about smoking cigars with western leaders who share a similar world view.  Sometimes its messy, ugly, and uncomfortable. How Biden could single out the Saudis as the pariah when there are so many bad actors with whom the US needs to interact is unfathomable. Running as the anti-Trump candidate might be nice, but casting aside the Saudis when they may have been on the verge of making peace with Israel, and keeping them isolated, is just bad policy. 

To his credit, it seems that Biden will continue a precedent that Trump established by flying in Air Force One directly between Israel and Saudi Arabia which, until Trump, never happened so as not to offend Saudi sensibilities. 


Hopefully, by the time he lands in Riyadh, Biden will have fine-tuned his rhetoric and engage the leaders who can be allies, rather than continually pushing them away in favor of real pariahs. 

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