The Saudi Government has made repeated calls for the declaration of a ceasefire amid the pandemic and even before, which the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have consistently chosen to reject. So, it is clear who is the enemy of peace in Yemen. Therefore, any attempt to appease the Houthis without ensuring due security guarantees against their attacks inside Saudi territory will further complicate the UN-brokered process for a viable political settlement in Yemen. Writes Ali Asseri, former ambassador of Saudi Arabia, in an open letter to the US President Joe Biden.
Dear Mr. President
I am pleased to write this letter to you as a senior Saudi citizen who cherishes the historic partnership between our two great nations, which has survived the test of times for over three-quarters of a century. What has prompted me to pen down these thoughts is the recent glitch in our ties. However, it is reassuring that the attempted “rupture” on the basis of a tragic incident, which had largely fizzled out of public limelight, has quickly faded to become a sad footnote of history. Instead, with wisdom prevailing, your administration has chosen to “re-calibrate” Saudi-U.S. relations.
During your long stint in politics, from being elected as the youngest member of the U.S. Senate in 1972 to the recent assumption of the most powerful office of the world, you must have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the complexity of challenges in our troublesome region. As Vice President in the Obama administration, you helped defuse the sectarian strife in Iraq. And, in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” your cautious voice helped dissuade the proponents of a liberal democracy agenda in a region where the roots of the political crisis are primarily socio-economic in nature.
Unfortunately, since then, policy inconsistencies or the lack of resolve by the Obama and Trump administrations had considerably eroded U.S. credibility as a reliable Arab partner. Our strategic partnership had made a significant difference in previous decades in liberating the world from the dangers of communism and terrorism. Such partnership is needed ever more today, as multiple crises of the region have greatly confounded. America, under your wise leadership, should strive to adopt a different approach to restore its lost credibility in the region. It is, therefore, important to lay down the facts as they are in the Arab world and underline the perceived grievances that we have in Saudi Arabia.
To start with, Saudi in particular remain bitter about the Barack Obama years, for having been rebuked as “the so-called ally” and asked to “share the region with Iran,” a state that still sponsors terrorism in the eyes of the United Nations. The wider perception in the Gulf is that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which the Obama administration had sponsored in 2015 without consulting the Arab allies, was a flawed nuclear deal: For, under its cover, Iran’s revolutionary regime was able to spread its destabilizing influence across the region through its militant proxies or client states, particularly in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Since then, armed with Iranian drones and precision-guided missiles, the Houthis in Yemen have directly threatened Saudi security scores of times.
Moreover, the reason we are still grappling with the tragic implications of the Arab Spring is because it was wrong to initially court the forces of extremism such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and leave the victims of subsequent conflict such as in Syria alone to face the wrath of a tyrannical regime. Look where Syria, Iraq, and Libya stand today. Lebanon is on the edge of a precipice, and several other Arab nations, including Egypt and Algeria, are still finding it difficult to recover from the implications of the 2011 uprisings.
Secondly, there is no doubt that the Trump presidency witnessed a warming of Saudi-U.S. defence and diplomatic relations. However, it is also a fact that President Donald Trump turned our strategic relationship into a transactional one—even publicly ridiculing our King for not surviving “two weeks” without American protection. He also did note after the 2019 “pearl harbor” like drone and missile attack on Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq, whose Iranian link was confirmed by the UN, except providing token U.S. military help for which he said Saudi Arabia had to pay “100 percent of the cost.”
Therefore, the so-called notion of Saudi coziness with Mr. Trump is not entirely true. Yes, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and our Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, were able to develop a close personal rapport, which, as some reports suggest, has paved the way for the conclusion of the Abraham Accords. The normalization of relations between Israel and four Arab nations—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—in exchange for a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank renews the possibility of a two-state solution to the lingering problem of Palestine. These Accords also significantly address the pending Israeli security concerns in an inhospitable region. If MBS has at all played some part in the process, even in partnership with Mr. Kushner, then he may have accomplished in half a decade what a generation of Arab leaders could not in the previous several decades.
MBS is also fundamentally transforming Saudi Arabia, by steering a revolutionary socio-economic reforms process under his Vision 2030 strategic plan to wean the country’s economy away from overreliance on oil and to reshape its society along the liberal values of gender equity, religious tolerance, and global openness. Internally, the avenues of free expression, modern education, and public entertainment—regardless of the distinctions in race, class or gender—have considerably widened. Women empowerment is echoed across the Kingdom, and there is zero-tolerance for corruption. Judicial reforms have expanded the avenues of justice and curtailed the powers of the clerical order. The economic reforms agenda focuses on empowering the youth, which constitutes the bulk of our population, particularly providing its urbanized and educated segment the due opportunities for upward social mobility and consequent responsible roles in national development.
Moreover, MBS has redefined the global engagement of Saudi Arabia, which now aspires to become an international hub of tourism, trade, and investment and an economic powerhouse on the world stage. Besides creating a conducive climate for the growth of the private sector, including investments from abroad, it is on the road to developing the first-of-its-kind mega infrastructure projects like the much-talked-about futuristic Red Sea resort city of NEOM. Finally, MBS has championed a state narrative that replaces ideological considerations with developmental priorities in regards to the Kingdom’s international conduct and outreach. Since the time of King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz almost half a century ago, Saudi Arabia has hardly seen a leader with such a progressive vision or sense of purpose.
Hence, MBS’s popularity, especially among young Saudis, is for a valid reason. To be sure, our country is at a moment of history where its reformist leadership wants to make a difference both at home and abroad. Rather than being ostracized on a frivolous basis, as happened recently, it needs sustainable global support to ensure economic diversification and social liberalization at home. Mr. President, your administration has set clear goals for decarbonizing the global economy and reviving liberal values across the world, which hardly clash with the current policy priorities of Saudi Arabia.
In the international sphere, the Saudi Government is artful enough to adapt its policies to evolving political dynamics, including in the United States—but certainly not at the cost of its national security or territorial integrity. Thus, well before your assumption of presidency, Mr. President, the blockade of Qatar was lifted through diplomatic negotiations, barring the resolution of remaining issues. Afterwards, heeding your human rights agenda, Saudi women rights activist Loujain Hathloul and several US citizens were released from prison. Moreover, despite the end of U.S. military support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen and the reversal of the executive order that classified the Houthi militia as a terrorist group, Saudi authorities have assured due cooperation to your envoy Tim Lenderking for securing a diplomatic settlement in Yemen. As expected, the Houthis are in no mood to end this by accepting the Saudi plea for declaration of ceasefire. Instead, what they have done this month is launch drones and missiles at the heart of Saudi oil industry, attacking the Aramco facility at Ras Tanura, followed by another drone and missile attack on oil refineries in the capital city of Riyadh.
This surely reminds us of the JCPOA, which has emboldened Iran to wreak havoc in Arab lands until this day. Yet, I have no doubt that Saudi Arabia will be willing to participate in a diplomatic process that renegotiates the terms of a new nuclear treaty with Iran, provided that the lifting of economic sanctions on its expansionist regime is made conditional to not just curbing its nuclear enrichment potential but also addressing the other two serious matters: Iran’s precision-guided missile capacity and its malign behaviour in the region. Saudi Arabia’s principled stand on containing Iranian militarism in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon is quite logical. Mr. President, you may remember the article in Foreign Affairs magazine published last year, in which you have endorsed the same stance by saying “I’m under no illusions about the Iranian regime, which has engaged in destabilizing behavior across the Middle East, brutally cracked down on protestors at home, and unjustly detained Americans.”
I am glad that your cautious instincts have once again prevailed to prevent the downhill slide of Saudi-U.S. relations beyond the recent tirade from our two governments. As they say, domestic politics and foreign policy are often intertwined. We understand the current cleavages in American politics, but this is an internal matter. The Saudi issue seems to be with the partisan political interests at the U.S. Capitol, especially the Democratic Left and its unholy alliance with the rights groups, who have spared no effort to castigate MBS in a bad light due to his personal bond with Mr. Kushner. In doing so, they have done a great disservice to our longstanding relationship, which normally transcends domestic politics or leadership choices. These very forces will do even greater harm, if not checkmated in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, our two nations must move on. Mr. President, your expression of solidarity with Saudi Arabia in conversation with King Salman last month, and our leadership’s earlier expression of interest in further expanding our mutual ties lay down the essential basis of what Saudi Arabia and the United States jointly need to accomplish in the Arab world, from forging peace in Yemen and creating stability in Iraq to reversing the humanitarian tragedy in Syria and preventing Iran from further spoiling the Arab future.
Your administration officials have done a great job by clarifying that a “rupture” is not in order and the United States only seeks to “re-calibrate” its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated, “is an important one. We have significant ongoing interests. We remain committed to the defense of the kingdom.” Your spokesman Ned Price has reiterated that “Saudi Arabia is a hugely influential country in the Arab world and beyond. What happens in Saudi Arabia will continue to have and has had profound implications well beyond Saudi Arabia’s borders.” That is why, in his opinion, the United States seeks “to accomplish a great deal with the Saudis: to end the war in Yemen and ease Yemen’s humanitarian crisis; to use our leadership to forge ties across the region’s most bitter divide, whether that’s finding the way back from the brink of war with Iran into a meaningful regional dialogue or forging a historic peace with Israel; to help young Saudis open their society to connect to the world, to seize their full potential, and to build ties with Americans.”
Saudi Arabia is indeed powerful, with tremendous soft and hard power in the Islamic world as the citadel of Islam, and in the Gulf region and the Arab world due to its political capital and economic potential. It is also a responsible international actor and has prevented global economic recession multiple times in the past by stabilizing the global energy value.
Twice since 2018, upon U.S. request, Saudi Arabia has first raised and then reduced its oil production capacity for the same reason. It was also under Saudi leadership in 2020 that the G20 committed more than $21 billion to combat the Covid-19 pandemic through vaccine development and therapeutics and more than $11 trillion in stimulus money to restore the global economy.
While gearing up its internal socio-economic reforms and resisting any foreign attempt to dictate its scope or pace, the Saudi leadership must be equally interested in “recalibrating” relations with the United States, as there is hardly any point of divergence over key issues of regional peace. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has consistently sought political solutions since the start of the hostilities in 2015 by cooperating with successive UN envoys, taking steps to reunite the North with the Southern Transitional Council, and offering $17 billion in humanitarian assistance. It has sponsored the GCC initiative, facilitated the outcomes of the Yemini peace dialogue, and called for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 2216.
The Saudi leadership would gladly spend all its energy on implementing the Vision 2030 plan, especially due to the fact that the global pandemic has slowed it down a bit. Perhaps that is why Saudi Arabia would like to exit from this war, a desire that does not contradict with the current U.S. policy in Yemen. The Saudi Government has made repeated calls for the declaration of a ceasefire amid the pandemic and even before, which the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have consistently chosen to reject. So, it is clear who is the enemy of peace in Yemen. Therefore, any attempt to appease the Houthis without ensuring due security guarantees against their attacks inside Saudi territory will further complicate the UN-brokered process for a viable political settlement in Yemen.
In the case of Iraq, the inconsistent U.S. approach of propping up rival sectarian interests since the 2003 war created the political and security space for ISIS terrorism and Iranian militarism. The meltdown in Iraq is neither in Saudi nor U.S. interests. Sustainable peace in Iraq is only possible if Iran’s security and political gains, especially in the post-JCPOA period, are reversed through concerted efforts. The re-grouping of ISIS in the war-torn nations of both Iraq and Syria could be prevented likewise. A similarly incoherent U.S. policy in Syria has allowed non-Arab powers—Russia, Turkey, and Iran, with Hezbollah as its militant proxy—to consolidate their influence, ensure the survival of the brutal Assad regime and produce an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Together with its Arab allies, the United States can put an end to foreign interference in Syria through a new defence and diplomatic strategy whose sole purpose should be to salvage the Syrian people.
Beyond these hotspots, there are many security and economic issues that require Saudi input and U.S. leadership, from Lebanon and Sudan to Libya and Afghanistan. However, from the Gulf to the Levant, it is the Iranian militant footprint that remains the root-cause of the regional upheaval. The reason America has not done enough to deal with this foremost problem in league with its Arab allies explains why four of these countries have ultimately chosen to partner with Israel under the Abraham Accords. The U.S. abdication of regional responsibility has also facilitated the Turkish intrusion into Arab affairs, especially in Syria and Iraq, with its neo-Ottoman regime under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan showing no respite in pursuing its expansionist agenda. So, it is not Iran alone that poses a danger to the security of several Arab states. The United States now also has to deal with Turkey, including its nexus with Russia, together with its Arab allies.
As for the future of Palestine post-Abraham Accords, with the issue of Jewish settlements currently on the back burner, it is time to revive the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which was also proposed by the Saudi leadership and later endorsed by the Arab League. It offers Israel peace and normalization with all 22 members of the Arab League as the reward for withdrawing from all occupied Arab land and agreeing to an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with a capital city in East Jerusalem. Mr. President, this may be the deal of the century that could very well materialize if your administration chooses to extend its cooperation to Saudi Arabia.
Last but not the least, Mr. President, let us also recalibrate our ties in the economic domain. Our contribution to the global economy and, hence, the American economy in the energy sector are well known. But let’s not forget that Saudi investments had helped keep the U.S. Treasury afloat for several decades. More investments have followed under MBS, who has undertaken a major global drive to attract international investment for his economic diversification plan. This is an area where U.S. private-sector financing and expertise on large-scale infrastructure, development, and entrepreneurship projects can make a difference inside Saudi Arabia. This would solidify Saudi-U.S. economic bonds, even if the two countries continue to differ in their perceptions and policies on some issues of regional security and geopolitics under a recalibrated relationship based on mutual respect.
Ali Asseri served as ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Pakistan (2001-09) and Lebanon (2009-16). He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Beirut Arab University and has authored a book titled Combating Terrorism: Saudi Arabia’s Role in the War on Terror, which received a letter of appreciation from President Barrack Obama.