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Riyadh and Washington: Pragmatism and other subjects

Zuhair al-Harthi

Published: Updated:

Much has been said in the media about Saudi-US relations, especially since the arrival of President Biden to the White House. Perhaps some of it is true, but what is also true is that the delicacy of the current circumstances requires Riyadh and Washington to coordinate, cooperate, and talk. The two countries need each other as they are both concerned with the security of the Gulf region, the stability of the oil market, and the fight against terrorism and the aggressive threats of Iran and its terrorist arms. We tackle this issue today against the backdrop of the high-level visit made by Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister and former Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States, to Washington, where he met senior officials in the Departments of State and Defense and the White House.

This important visit marked the first visit made by a Saudi official under the Biden administration, and therefore, establishes the nature of bilateral cooperation and coordination in the coming period. President Biden, a veteran politician in his own right, has experienced the deep historical relations and rapprochement between the US and the Kingdom throughout the various posts he occupied. Despite the rocky road in the past periods, though, the two countries managed to overcome obstacles given their common interests and pragmatism.

Saudi-US relations go beyond the political leanings of a certain administration or the pressures of a certain party. Rather, they are a key element of foreign policy, given Washington’s keenness to preserve its interests in the region, which prompts it to deal with influential and central states, like indispensable Saudi Arabia. Far from being nascent, Saudi-US relations date back to the historic meeting that took place 77 years ago between the founding father King Abdulaziz and then-US President Franklin Roosevelt on USS Quincy, which laid the foundation for what was to come.

According to the media, Prince Khalid’s visit tackled several issues, such as “security issues in Iraq and Syria, the valued Saudi efforts to end the war in Yemen, and the situation in Israel and Palestinian territories,” as well as GCC countries’ concern vis-à-vis “the Biden administration’s nuclear talks with Iran.”

The US message was clear as day in the words of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who underlined the US commitment to maintaining defense relations with the Kingdom and to “working with Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen and standing up to Iran’s destabilizing activities.” He also denounced “the cross-border operations launched by Iran-backed Houthi militias.” For his part, Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken underlined, after his meeting with Prince Khalid, the importance of developing the strategic partnership with Riyadh and supporting efforts to maintain peace and security at the regional and international levels. Prince Khalid also announced that he met with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to “review mutual coordination within the framework of our historic partnership and discuss regional and international developments.”

The visit, which undoubtedly set bilateral relations in motion again and cleared the atmosphere, came at an opportune time as direct meetings often turn out fruitful. This should mean a gradual resolution that starts with an assessment of bilateral relations against the backdrop of past and current developments in the region. Here, we must mention the great efforts exerted by both parties in the last few years, particularly Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to reshape ties, rearrange priorities, and resolve outstanding issues, which helped restore bilateral relations.

Today, we are looking at a responsible policy that prioritizes the security and stability of the region and its people. Despite the inevitable differences in viewpoints, maintaining contacts, talks, and meetings is vital. Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, the Saudi Ambassador to the US, had once mentioned the root of the problem in US-Saudi relations, saying: “The biggest challenge facing the Kingdom today in the United States is the prevailing stereotype and prejudices against it.” Naturally, there is a communication gap in my opinion that must be bridged through arduous accumulative efforts and a comprehensive strategy.

The success of this task depends on the contribution of other segments of society as well to get the point across through conducting visits by Saudi civil society institutions to the US, activating parliamentary diplomacy, establishing media and specialized research centers, and creating an influential lobby in the US political sphere.

Today, the rules of the international game have changed with a new distribution of international policy in the region. The Saudi-US relations are not currently at the desired level, but they are also not as troubled as some like to claim. Communication between the two countries is urgent for the recovery of relations on the one hand and for the repercussions and impact thereof on the region and the world on the other hand. Therefore, the two countries are interdependent when viewed in light of international relations; hence, the necessity of deep dialogue on the basis of transparent and clear understandings.

The Biden administration must read the region well to succeed there. It must not only commit to achieving its promises but must also discern friend from ally from foe. The US handling of Iran’s nuclear file, including the Vienna talks, put the Biden administration’s orientations on the line, and will prove whether his administration is a recycled version of the Obama administration or will adopt a new approach and vision.

It is no secret that many actors on the international scene dread a Saudi-US rapprochement that could topple their interests, which is why they constantly resort to old tricks to widen the gap between the two countries. However, the statements of officials in both countries have been marked with rationality and wisdom, which is something that reflects a desire to build upon past relations. Cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the US is a necessity, not a luxury; and pragmatism has always been the cornerstone of these relations.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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