US President Joe Biden in his presidential campaign would often say, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.” And that is exactly the approach the United States should take in judging foreign governments.
Saudi leaders have undertaken a critical and extraordinary transformation of the country that is crucial to the stability of the Middle Eastern and global economy. The Kingdom and its sister GCC countries also continue to be islands of stability and progress in a region littered with failed states that breed instability and pose a danger to the world.
In this context, the president’s upcoming visit to the Kingdom will be a welcome and wise step forward in getting the US-Saudi relationship back on the right track.
Here, the United States should bear in mind that the foundations of this relationship cannot be built on a total agreement on values in domestic governance or foreign policy; they should focus instead on shared interests and objectives, where both parties can deliver value that mutually benefits them and serves the common good.
This includes not only oil market stability, which the Kingdom has diligently focused on for decades, but also an appreciation by the US for burden sharing, something that the Kingdom and the GCC perform constantly in supporting other critical countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, and Pakistan, along with many others, in terms of energy and food security, foreign direct investment, and balance-of-payments support, a factor that too often gets ignored by US policy makers, who tend to obsess over their most immediate demands at the expense of the wider picture.
The US mindset need not be “you are either with us or against us,” manifested as an unrealistic demand to sever all ties with Russia, while ignoring the critical role that GCC countries play to help countries suffering from the Ukraine crisis. An example is Saudi Arabia’s most recent injection of $5 billion to help Egypt with its growing food shortage emanating from the Ukrainian conflict.
The US-Saudi relationship has to be looked at in its totality, with an appreciation for history and a sensitivity to the needs and interests of America’s friends in the Gulf.
Burden sharing is a critical role that the GCC plays in promoting a stable world order. But this fact is easily forgotten amid the passion of the moment as US politicians get caught up in their fleeting slogans and immediate political priorities. It would be difficult to find other allies or partners (call them what you may) like the GCC who continue to contribute positively to supporting a stable US-led world order at no financial cost to the United States.
Americans who talk about the lives and the wealth lost in their “never-ending wars” in the Middle East would do well to remember that these post-9/11 wars went directly against Saudi advice and were consequently a wound the United States inflicted on itself. In fact, absent these wars, since the early 1980s and the Carter Doctrine the US has expended very little in lives or money defending the status quo in the Gulf but has benefited substantially from GCC military spending in support of its military industrial base and associated creation of US jobs. The 1990 Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, for example, ended up being a moneymaker for the US as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait covered the financial costs of the war, while US human costs were comparatively limited.
As US politicians today loudly and self-righteously preach “accountability” to everybody but themselves, especially in regard to mistakes that the Kingdom has made in years past which are miniscule compared to the massive human suffering caused by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, (a war President Biden, Hillary Clinton and many others voted for) they may note that nobody in the US has been held accountable for this suffering and the associated war crimes, the collateral damage from hundreds of “targeted killings“ all over the region, or even other disastrous US actions going back to the Vietnam War. Not a single US official of consequence in living memory has faced any accountability for a single war crime, C.I.A “black sites” and illegal renditions or other mistakes with the latest example being the horrific death of an innocent family in Kabul caused by a drone attack in the final days of the Afghanistan occupation.
Today we have an approaching visit by President Biden to the Kingdom to meet the King and Crown Prince, followed by a summit with key regional players. It will be a golden opportunity to prioritize the interests the GCC and the US share and to determine how best to move forward in upholding them to everybody’s mutual benefit, rather than dwell on a complicated past where no one is guilt-free, least of all US leaders.