It seems fair to see US President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia as the most consequential foreign visit of his Presidency. Saudis have served as America’s strategic partners not only in the Middle East but globally, acting at America’s behest to ensure the plentiful flow of oil and gas that powers an economy that has lifted billions of people out of dire poverty since the end of the Second World War. When Ronald Reagan needed a partner to help end the Cold War, Saudi Arabia helped ensure the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan – while using its power as the world’s swing producer of oil to bankrupt America’s global foe. Saudis are proud of our contribution to global prosperity and freedom. We are proud to be America’s partner.
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Saudis are also aware that all lasting partnerships are founded on a solid bedrock of mutual self-interest. It is therefore our ambition to continue to be a valued partner to the most powerful nation in the world – the place where many of us were educated, and where the doctors who take care of our parents and children were trained. We want to continue to reap the benefits of a mutually beneficial relationship with America.
So, when President Biden promises that “my aim will be to strengthen a strategic partnership going forward that’s based on mutual interests and responsibilities,” his words are music to Saudi ears. We understand full well that “mutual interests and responsibilities” means that Saudi Arabia continues to supply the energy and investment dollars that help fuel the American economy and create tens of thousands of high-paying jobs for American workers in fields including energy, green technology, construction, medical science, and manufacturing. That’s our part of the bargain, and we are happy to keep it.
As I wrote in March, to be clear, we are not looking for US troops to die for our oil. We want the US to help us to develop the systems we need to defend ourselves. We want the US to equip our armed forces with American-made weapons that not only make us stronger, but which make the US stronger, not least by creating jobs for American citizens.
In return for keeping our part of the bargain, we expect the US to treat Saudi Arabia like a valued ally, respecting our society, our religion and our leaders, and paying attention to our needs, including our need for security in the region where we live.
In a Politico article, the Kingdom’s Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar said, “‘Oil for security’ is now in the past. As my nation develops, we can build a partnership around energy, stability and regional growth.”
Most of all, we expect the US to work with the region to bolster our collective defense – and not treat us like “pariahs,” while treating the Iranian Mullahs who chant “Death to America” and “Death to Saudi Arabia” like allies, which they are not.
Are the needs and values of America and Saudi Arabia precisely identical? Of course not. Saudi Arabia is a Muslim nation – a traditional society which is proud of its history and its binding networks of family ties, of the purity of its Arabic language, and of the generosity of its social welfare programs and charitable endowments. Just as many Saudis look with wonder and envy at American freedoms and accomplishments in science, engineering and technology, we are also taken aback by many aspects of American society – the disrespect of children for their parents, the disintegration of families, the discarding of the elderly, libertine attitudes towards sexuality, widespread drug abuse, mass shootings, the decay of the American educational system, and other social ills. Many Americans I know feel the same way.
Yet under the guidance of our young reformist Prince, who sponsors techno raves in the desert, and encourages women to be educated and join the workforce, Saudi and American society are closer now in many important areas than they have ever been before – by far. A century ago, when relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States began, Saudis were scandalized by the fact that many Americans drank copious amounts of alcohol in public and didn’t pray, while Americans were scandalized by the fact that women couldn’t drive in the Kingdom. In short, the US is not Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia is not the US, and never will be – and both countries will continue to engage in healthy criticism of the other. Those differences are precisely why the US-Saudi partnership has been so essential for the success of both countries: Each society has something to offer the other, and each acts as a mirror in which the other can see its own strengths and weaknesses reflected.
So, what exactly are the “mutual interests and responsibilities” that President Biden has in mind as the foundation for a continuing alliance? We will find out soon when President Biden meets with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi port city of Jedda. But if the President’s words are sincere, then his visit is likely to be a huge success for both countries, because there is no set of mutual interests and responsibilities existing in the actual, physical world where we make our homes that Saudi Arabia is not prepared to shoulder in order to strengthen the economic, military, diplomatic and strategic health of both countries and perpetuate the US-Saudi alliance.
The only way President Biden’s visit will be a failure is if he doesn’t actually mean what he wrote. If the price of an alliance with America is for Saudi Arabia’s leaders to abandon the welfare and security of their people in order to adopt American morals – or to nod at the strategic wisdom of giving nuclear weapons to the Mullahs in Iran whose main article of faith is the chant “Death to America” – the answer will be, you are always a welcome guest in our homes. But you are no longer interested in being our partners.
Let’s hope that day never comes – and certainly not this week.