Saudi Arabia: The Chimera of A Grand Alliance (REUEL MARC GERECHT, Liberties Journal)

Which brings us to the current Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the country — easily the most detested Saudi royal in the West since the kingdom’s birth. With the exception of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who is the most indefatigable Middle Eastern dictator since World War II, MBS is the most consequential autocrat in the region. And the prince made a proposal to America — a proposal that may survive the Gaza war, which has reanimated anti-Zionism and constrained the Gulf Arab political elite’s decade-old tendency to deal more openly with the Jewish state. To wit: he is willing to establish an unparalleled tight and lucrative relationship with Washington, and let bygones be bygones — forget the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and all the insults by Joe Biden — so long as America is willing to guarantee Saudi Arabia’s security… […]

When it came to cult worship, Saudi kings and princes had been fairly low-key compared to most other Middle Eastern rulers. Yet MBS’ sentiments are, again, more modern. He has effectively established a police state — the first ever in Saudi history. His creation is certainly not as ruthless as the Orwellian nightmares of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Assad’s Syria; it is neither as loaded with internal spies nor rife with prison camps as Abdul Fattah El-Sisi’s Egypt. But MBS’ Arabia is a work in progress. Those in America and Israel who advocate that the United States should draw closer to MBS, so as to anchor a new anti-Iran alliance in Riyadh, are in effect saying that we should endorse MBS and his vision of a more secular, female-driving, anti-Islamist Saudi Arabia without highlighting its other, darker aspects, or that we should just ignore the kingdom’s internal affairs and focus on what the crown prince gives us externally. This realist calculation usually leads first back to the negatives: without the crown prince’s support of American interests, Russia, China, and Iran, the revisionist axis that has been gaining ground as America has been retrenching, will do even better. And then the positive: Saudi recognition of Israel would permanently change the Jewish state’s standing in the Muslim world — a long-sought goal of American diplomacy.

The prince clearly knows how much Benjamin Netanyahu wants Saudi Arabia’s official recognition of Israel. The Israeli prime minister has loudly put it at the top of his foreign-policy agenda. (Before the Gaza war, it might have had the additional benefit of rehabilitating him at home.) The prince clearly knows how much American Jewry wants to see an Israeli embassy in Riyadh. And after some initial weariness, the Biden administration now wants to add the kingdom to the Abraham Accords. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan recognizing Israel was good, but Saudi Arabia would be better. Although the White House certainly hasn’t thought through how the United States would fit into an Israeli-Saudi-US defensive alliance, whether it would even be politically or militarily possible, the administration proffered the idea before Biden went to Saudi Arabia in 2022 — or echoed an earlier, vaguer Saudi suggestion of a defensive pact — as part of Riyadh’s official recognition of Israel. Given the importance that MBS attaches to things Jewish, he may well believe his offer of Israeli recognition gives him considerable leverage in future dealings with the United States.

Joe Biden paved the way for MBS’ go-big proposal by making one of the most embarrassing flips in presidential history. Biden came into office pledging to reevaluate US-Saudi ties and cast MBS permanently into the cold for the gruesome killing of Khashoggi and, a lesser sin, making a muck of the war in Yemen, which has led to the United States, given its crucial role in maintaining and supplying the Saudi Air Force, being an accomplice in a bombing campaign that has had a negligible effect on the Shiite Houthis capacity to fight but has killed thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Yemeni civilians. (In civil wars, it is hard to know who is starving whom, but the Saudi role in bringing starvation to Yemen has not been negligible.) Fearing another hike in oil prices before the midterm elections, Biden travelled to Saudi Arabia, fist-bumping MBS and getting not much in return except reestablishing what has been true in US–Saudi relations from the beginning, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt hosted two of King Ibn Saud’s sons in Washington: everything is transactional.

We conspire to deny Arabs the self-determination we claim is universal and then wonder why we are unpopular.