Branding Saudi Arabia a pariah state would be counterproductive to regional stability.
December 6, 2020, 8:00 Am
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and then-Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 27, 2011. AFP via Getty Images
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman took his time before congratulating U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on his recent election victory. This wasn’t a fluke: Over the course of the past four years, the crown prince led a fruitless bombing campaign in Yemen, may have gotten away with murder, and initiated a secret program with China to process uranium. Progressive members of the U.S. Democratic caucus will soon urge Biden to abandon the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, but Biden should resist this plea; abandoning allies rarely leads them to better behavior. Instead, Biden should form a coalition of Western allies and Middle Eastern states—including Saudi Arabia—that gives the United States more leverage to prevent the kingdom from acquiring nuclear weapons and violating human rights.
Republican and Democratic members of Congress are fed up with Saudi Arabia. Last year, President Donald Trump vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have blocked arms sales to the country in response to its bombing campaign in Yemen. Every Democrat in Congress who voted supported the bill, but, notably, so did Trump allies such as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. In his criticism of Saudi Arabia, Biden has gone even further than most members of Congress. In November 2019, during a Democratic primary debate, Biden said he “would make it very clear we were not going to … sell more weapons” to Saudi Arabia, which would “make them … the pariah that they are.”
Holding Saudi Arabia accountable for pursuing nuclear weapons and committing human rights violations makes sense. The question is how to do it. Making the kingdom a pariah state will not curb its nuclear ambitions or its human rights violations.
If Washington wants reform in Riyadh, it should consider what worries Saudi Arabia most—abandonment by the United States. The Saudi government’s fear of abandonment has its roots in the Arab Spring, which began nearly a decade ago. At the time, the administration of then U.S. President Barack Obama supported pro-democracy protestors in Egypt as ostensible U.S. ally—and dictator—Hosni Mubarak clung tenuously to power. Members of the Saudi monarchy recognized it was within the realm of possibility that they, too, could be betrayed.
Saudi anxieties have metastasized since then. The Iran nuclear deal of 2015 was regarded inside the kingdom as a U.S. attempt to betray Saudi Arabia and befriend Iran. Riyadh prefers Trump to Obama, in part because Trump has ignored its human rights violations and has proved more aggressive against Iran. But even Trump taunts King Salman over his country’s dependence on the United States: “King—we’re protecting you,” he told the leader in 2018. “You might not be there for two weeks without us.”
If Washington wants reform in Riyadh, it should consider what worries Saudi Arabia most—abandonment by the United States.
The recent push in Congress to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia merely cemented Riyadh’s fears of abandonment. It’s no coincidence, then, that the crown prince has launched a secret, Chinese-backed nuclear program and views continued Iranian influence in Yemen as an existential threat. He, along with many Saudi elites, increasingly feels that a relationship with China—particularly one that allows Saudi Arabia to procure a nuclear weapons arsenal of its own—makes more sense than continued dependence on Washington.
If the United States does not forge a new approach, this scenario could easily precipitate a regional nuclear standoff: Saudi nuclear weapons pointed at Iran, Iranian nuclear weapons aimed at Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt manufacturing nuclear technologies of their own, and Israel nervously eyeing its nuclear button.
If the Biden administration makes Saudi Arabia a pariah state, it’s unlikely that the kingdom’s behavior would improve—even if it doesn’t immediately acquire a nuclear bomb. The other U.S.-sanctioned pariah states—Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba—are some of the worst human rights abusers (and nuclear proliferators) on earth. Ostracism hasn’t changed them, and it won’t change Saudi Arabia.
If turning the United States’ back on Saudi Arabia won’t cool its nuclear weapons ambitions or its human rights violations, showing a long-term commitment to the region just might. What could ease Saudi insecurities is encouraging Riyadh to join a new league of Western and Middle Eastern states that cooperate multilaterally on matters of military, energy, economics, and social development. Even if the coalition started somewhat small—just the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Saudi Arabia, and smaller Arab states such as Jordan, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Tunisia—it would demonstrate that the United States and its Western allies will not soon leave the kingdom at the mercy of Iran or other outside powers. This alone should placate Riyadh’s fears enough to make nuclear weapons and indiscriminate bombing campaigns far less attractive.
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Through a new joint regional training center, the pact would train and equip the armed forces of member states to make them more militarily self-sufficient. If a member state were to come under attack, the West would promise to support them with reconnaissance, air power, and special operators—but not ground forces. Washington has already used this leaner approach effectively in the first Persian Gulf War and in its successful fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
Such an agreement should also focus U.S. and European private-sector financing and expertise on large-scale infrastructure, development, and entrepreneurship projects enticing to Middle Eastern states. Because the United States’ International Development Finance Corporation can now tie loan guarantees and financing directly to Washington’s foreign-policy goals, large investment plans of this nature are more feasible than in the past.
Western countries could also use development banks to back investments in non-nuclear energy alternatives such as renewables, natural gas, and pipeline projects. In the sun- and gas-soaked Middle East, these are far cheaper sources of electricity than nuclear power reactors.
Diplomatically, the coalition would create a forum for coalition members to settle regional energy and territorial disputes. In exchange, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern coalition members would commit not to withdraw from the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to forswear activities that could be used to make nuclear explosive materials, and to conform to an agreed set of human rights norms for military operations.
While it may start small, the coalition should have grander aspirations. Israel’s rapprochements with Arab states might open the door for it to become the group’s first nonfounding member, and the courting of Egypt and Turkey would follow.
Like the Marshall Plan’s invitation to the Soviet Union, the door must also remain open for Iran to join the group. To join, however, Iran—and all other prospective member states in the region—would have to commit to rolling back enrichment or reprocessing activities, ceasing military operations against fellow member states, and supporting proxy warfare. So far, Tehran has shown no interest in meeting the latter two conditions. Nonetheless, the coalition should highlight the economic advantages of a non-nuclear future and the security benefits of greater restraint. In the meantime, the pact would enable the sort of multilateral approach that Arab states and Israel need to effectively counter Iranian adventurism.
Like the Marshall Plan’s invitation to the Soviet Union, the door must also remain open for Iran to join the group.
Finally, to make the coalition truly succeed, Washington must prove the pact can survive regardless of who’s in the White House. In an ideal world, the U.S. Senate would secure the pact as a treaty. Whether or not that happens, Congress should fund the United States’ contribution to the pact in perpetuity. Members of Congress might get the ball rolling by penning a bipartisan resolution in support of the plan. If Saudi Arabia were to become convinced that the United States will remain dedicated to stability in the Middle East, Washington would find itself in a far better position to pull Riyadh, and other capitals, away from their worst instincts. When it’s all said and done, the crown prince might even regret waiting so long to congratulate Biden on his recent electoral victory.
John Spacapan is the Wohlstetter public affairs fellow at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.