The Objective Reality of the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

President Biden undoubtedly continues to dislike MBS. But the U.S. does not exist in some ethereal realm of gumdrops and friendship bracelets, and eventually the two men will have to meet.

MBS standing in an ornate, gold-trimmed room
Bernd von Jutrczenka / Picture-Alliance / DPA / AP

After more than a week of indecision, the Biden administration has confirmed that the president will travel to Saudi Arabia next month to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s ruler. When I spoke with bin Salman—known universally as MBS—in December, he all but dared President Joe Biden not to meet with him. He told me that Biden’s job is to look out for American interests, and that if Biden thought that meant pissing off Saudi Arabia, then he should give that theory a try and see what happens. “Go for it,” MBS said to me in English, which he speaks well but not perfectly. I believe the idiom he was searching for was “make my day.”

As a candidate, Biden called MBS a “pariah.” The Mario Cuomo line about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose applies here: Biden undoubtedly continues to dislike MBS. But the United States does not exist in some ethereal realm of gumdrops and friendship bracelets, and eventually the two men will have to meet, because Saudi Arabia—troublesome though it is—remains a very useful country to have on your side. Its usefulness is opaque to those who see foreign policy solely in moral terms but clear to anyone with a healthy level of cynicism.

Yes, MBS’s comments about Biden (“Simply,” he told me, “I don’t care” what Biden thinks) were calculated to snub the president. But being a superpower means brushing off insults when the objective realities of the relationship demand it. As Andrew Exum wrote over the weekend, the demand that Biden treat Saudi Arabia as uniquely untouchable, and MBS as personally radioactive, is a little odd. The U.S. deals with nasty people and nasty governments all the time—including Saudi Arabia’s archrival Iran, which is literally becoming radioactive at this very moment. Real U.S. interests are at stake, and leaving them unprotected would be foolish.

Part of treating the Saudi relationship in objective terms is insisting that the meeting will yield objective outcomes. A smile and a handshake is a subjective outcome. An objective outcome is a deal where each side agrees to do something substantive that it would rather not do. The meeting is inevitable. The question is what Biden can get for the magnanimous gesture of a visit, and what he has to concede.

Oil will inevitably be the biggest demand. OPEC Plus has already agreed to pump slightly more oil than projected in the coming months, and that agreement is widely understood to be a welcoming gift in advance of Biden’s visit. It is also a signal that one OPEC Plus co-chair, Saudi Arabia, is willing to screw the other OPEC Plus co-chair, Russia. Biden would be right to ask for yet more oil, and to take what he can get.

But Saudi Arabia cannot pump its way out of a problem that it did not pump its way into. MBS is a pariah because he undertook massive and overdue reforms—and to ensure those reforms’ success, he locked up or cowed into submission everyone who criticized them and everyone who had even a remote chance of posing a threat to his total consolidation of power.

To rehabilitate himself internationally, MBS would probably have to pivot on these human-rights issues, and explicitly renounce the system he initiated five years ago. He would not have to admit fault—just say that the early days of his rule demanded a cruel and pitiless leader, and that a new era could accommodate a new style. (This claim is at least plausible. Five years ago, knowledgeable Saudis were predicting MBS’s death in a palace coup.) He could even take credit, and say that the victories from his first years in power have allowed an expansion of political liberty, to match his expansion of social and economic liberty. Saudi Arabia’s draconian religious law has been dismantled under MBS, and he has courted foreign investment aggressively by making the country more open, tolerant, and friendly to business.

When I asked MBS whether his so-called anti-corruption campaigns were really just dragnets to find and eliminate rivals, he was incredulous. Had he not already eliminated them all? He had a point. His ascent was both ruthless and successful. Now that his power is secure, he can afford to chill out. It’s too late for Jamal Khashoggi. But numerous other Saudis remain imprisoned or banned from travel. MBS could free many of them without undue hazard to his grip on power.

One of the Saudis banned from traveling and making public statements is Loujain al-Hathloul, 32, who became famous for asserting the right of women to drive cars. MBS supported this reform, and women are now just as free as men to risk their lives on the insane highways of the kingdom. Al-Hathloul, however, called for this freedom slightly before Saudi Arabia was ready to grant it—and for this outrage she was imprisoned in 2018, accused of terrorism, and not released until last year. In prison, her brother Walid told me, al-Hathloul was told she might be killed and thrown into a sewer, so that no one would know what happened to her. The punishment extended to her family. In 2018, her father discovered that he was barred from travel when he tried to board a flight out of the country and was denied exit by a bewildered immigration official, who gave no explanation or process for appeal.

I asked Walid, now in Toronto and unable to return home safely, what Biden should accept in return for his visit and a gradual easing of Saudi Arabia back into the fraternity of non-pariah states. “I am pragmatic,” he told me—agnostic about whether Biden should go at all, and more focused on what he might achieve or fail to achieve if he went. Release of political prisoners, he said, could make a visit worthwhile, although real justice would demand much more, including accountability for Khashoggi’s murder, and compensation for al-Hathloul’s torture and defamation.

He recognized the gap between this ideal and what he could realistically expect from the visit. And he agreed that MBS’s ascent to the throne is inevitable. (Until the death of his father, King Salman, MBS is regent but by title still only crown prince.) The best hope, then, is for what Walid called “institutionalization.” MBS spent his first five years in power reducing the state to himself and turning it into a violent instrument of his whims. Before MBS, he said, the Saudi state had back-channel processes that kept the monarchy from implicating the king himself in every decision. “Now whatever happens in Saudi Arabia is the responsibility of MBS,” Walid said. MBS should resurrect those institutions and step back from his current disastrous micromanagement.

That, I believe, is the beginning of a basis for resuming the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Both domestically and internationally, MBS’s biggest political flaw is the impression that he rules capriciously and without checks on his own fallible judgment. The remedy is to defer to institutions, which might filter and refine his caprice and provide restraint that he sometimes lacks. Replace the Kafkaesque travel bans with a clear system. Account for all prisoners, and provide redress and clemency for some of them. (Next month is hajj season, traditionally a time of fresh starts and forgiveness.) Walid noted that rebuilding institutions would provide the crown prince cover, since he would not be perceived as wholly responsible for every mistake his country makes.

Last year, a Saudi official told me that he hoped the two countries would “stop treating each other like each other’s mistresses, and instead treat each other as spouses.” He meant that the United States gave Saudi Arabia only the leftovers of its attention, rather than the dignity of permanent mutual obligation that the Saudis have always felt they deserved. The spousal relationship is a fantasy—one is a democracy and the other an absolute monarchy; together they’d be a geopolitical odd couple if ever there was one. And it is jarring, even alarming, to be told that you have unwittingly married someone you thought was a friend with benefits.

To accept this spousal relationship would be to accept that Saudi Arabia is done changing. And even the Saudis have acknowledged that their changes are not finished yet. MBS’s grand national makeover plan is Vision 2030, by which year Saudi Arabia will have transitioned into a country plausibly compatible with America and others. In the meantime, Biden should visit Saudi Arabia, and he should seek an arrangement as beneficial to American interests and morals as possible. And Saudi Arabia should be content to know that your friend with benefits is still a friend, even if the president himself is just not that into you.