Many are under the impression that the relationship between the US’ Democratic Party and Saudi Arabia differs from the one their Republican rivals enjoy with the Kingdom. It is also widely believed that Democrat Presidents or Congressmen have a principled anti-Riyadh stance. However, that is far from true: both parties have an oft-positive stand vis-à-vis the Kingdom, stemming from the historical ties and higher interests that bring the two countries together.
For the latest headlines, follow our Google News channel online or via the app.
In fact, the first US President to truly foster and cement ties with Saudi Arabia was a Democrat, not a Republican. As WWII was ending, Franklin Roosevelt met King Abdulaziz in the Suez Canal in February 1945, against the backdrop of shelling by Axis powers. This was possibly the most significant meeting held between the leaders of the two countries, as it laid the foundations for bilateral relations. Roosevelt’s interest was reaffirmed when he invited King Abdulaziz to visit Washington and, breaking protocol, received the King’s delegates – his sons, Faisal and Khalid – in the White House for a dinner ceremony that was attended by the Vice President, State Secretary, and several Congressmen at the time.
Similarly, the US and the Kingdom enjoyed good relations under Democratic President John Kennedy, who also supported the Kingdom during the Yemen war.
Analysts believed Democratic President Bill Clinton would be less keen to maintain the bilateral relations with the Kingdom in response to the exceptional relations that linked his predecessor, George H. W. Bush, and Riyadh. However, Clinton proved these assumptions wrong and went on to restructure and foster ties and select the Kingdom as a partner in the Bosnian war peace process.
Under President Barack Obama, bilateral relations were strong in the first presidential term, but Obama distanced himself during his second term as he sought to reach the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. He believed the deal to be a historical achievement that would put an end to the nuclear threat and was betting that the deal would turn Iran into a peaceful regime, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that focuses on development rather than wars. This naïve theory led to many cracks in the ties with Riyadh and was later proven to have carried many flaws in the President’s political philosophy and vision for the region. Soon enough, Iran began expanding its military operations and sowing the seeds of chaos across the region, funded by an estimated $120 billion – the equivalent of Jordan’s budget for six years – in blocked Iranian debts and funds it obtained from Washington.
The second mistake was when Obama concluded that the US must retreat from the region and will not need Saudi Arabia for the nuclear deal, and more importantly, for the shale oil approach that propelled his country from an oil-importing state that depends on Middle Eastern oil to an oil exporter. This conclusion was also proven wrong later: as the competition between the US and China escalated and Russia’s influence and regional relations expanded, the Middle East became all the more important. Then came the Ukraine War shock to guide the White House back to its old considerations. Ever since the 1920s, this oil and gas abundant region of strategic passageways known as the Middle East has been critical for US foreign policy makers and will remain so for many years to come.
What truly matters is the US President’s stances, not his party. Ties built on strong foundations go a longer way than those built on personal relations, contrary to what some believe.
The good relations with former President Donald Trump took a great deal of diplomatic efforts on the part of Saudi Arabia during his first weeks in the White House, but this special relation had negative repercussions in the elections later, as both parties threw the Riyadh ball in each other’s courts.
Similar difficulties seem to be on the way for the Biden term. For instance, when President Clinton entered the Oval Office, many believed the relations with Saudi Arabia would decline given the extraordinary ties between the Kingdom and his predecessor, George H. W. Bush, who played a major role in the alliance with Saudi Arabia to defeat Saddam Hussein and drive him out of Kuwait. Yet, during Clinton’s eight years in the White House, the relation with Saudi Arabia remained good and cooperative.
No presidential term has gone by without minor storms between the two countries, but both often successfully weather these storms discreetly. For instance, during Republican President Ronald Reagan’s term, King Fahd expelled US Ambassador Hume Horan for what he viewed to be an interference in the Kingdom’s domestic policy. I imagine Biden, who still has a bit over two years – which is not a short period – in the White House, will deal with US-Saudi ties with realism and positivity, despite the currents pushing him in an opposite, anti-Saudi direction.
In a quite unusual step, Biden wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post explaining his vision for relations with the Kingdom. The piece is a good indicator that the bilateral relations crisis is behind us. Now, we must wait and see how his meeting with the Saudi leadership will unfold. It is also expected that Biden will put an end to the anti-Saudi stances and decisions of the Trump era and his early Presidency in relation to military cooperation in the Yemen war, the blacklisting of Saudi persons, attempts to persecute Saudi sovereign institutions in US courts, and other such actions that would prevent the establishment of strong bilateral relations.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.