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How Biden waged a war on MBS, then came back begging
Rogin joins a chorus of pundits angry at US allies
Josh Rogin is usually poised and fair. That’s why I was surprised to read what seems to be a hit job on America’s Gulf allies — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But Rogin got it all wrong.
Rogin argues that US Gulf allies are undermining the “US-led effort to thwart Russian President Vladimir Putin.” He also says that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) is taking advantage of the Ukraine crisis to pressure the Biden administration into abandoning President Biden’s campaign promise to reset the U.S.-Saudi relationship. In Rogin’s scenario, MBS wants a turbulent relationship with America and Biden is playing along, a bizarre analysis.
Between the time President Biden took office on January 20, 2021 and the beginning of the Russian war on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Biden administration took the following measure toward the UAE and Saudi Arabia:
1- On January 29, 2021, the newly minted Biden administration announced a review of an already approved arms deal to the UAE, including sale of F-35 fighter jets. The review dragged for almost a year, prompting the UAE to try to save face by walking away.
2- On February 4, 2021, President Biden announced ending “support for Saudi-led offensive in Yemen” by ending sales of “relevant” weapons to Riyadh.
3- On February 12, 2021, the Biden administration delisted Yemen’s Houthis off the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). The Houthis are the pro-Iran militia that toppled Yemen’s government, prompting a Saudi-led Arab coalition to try to regain Sanaa and reinstate the government in 2015. In the ensuing war, Houthis hit dozens of civilian targets, including oil installation targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Such attacks raised oil prices (which Rogin views as the ultimate evil).
4- On February 26, 2021, the Biden administration declassified U.S. intel suggesting that MBS had ordered the capture of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.
5- On September 3, the Biden administration declassified U.S. intel on the 9/11 terrorist attacks with the intent of proving links between the Saudi government and the attackers. Note that MBS represents the antithesis of all Saudi monarchs who ruled between 1979 and 2001 and courted the Islamist movement. MBS has waged the most comprehensive reform campaign that included cracking down on all Islamist icons and driving the country toward moderation.
The Biden administration’s aggressive steps toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE was coupled with endless statements from Biden officials denouncing MBS, blaming him for the war in Yemen, attacking the UAE, all the while the Biden administration went on to lift some sanctions previously imposed on Iran and courted the Iran regime, begging it for the restoration of the skewed 2016 nuclear deal.
In his first 225 days in office, President Biden threw everything he got at Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Rogin denounces the reluctance of these countries in increasing their oil production after the outbreak of the Ukraine war, posing the question: “With such friends who needs enemies.” Indeed.
Then came the war on Ukraine.
On January 31, 2022, during the buildup to the Russian war on Ukraine and in anticipation of gas shortage, President Biden received Tamim bin Hamad, the Emir of Qatar — one of the world’s biggest gas producers. At the White House, Biden announced Qatar a Major Non-NATO Ally.
Qatar is a country that Rogin would call a “petrostate autocracy,” but that should come second to US national interests and the stability of global energy markets.
You would think that, by the same token, President Biden would have extended a similar treatment to other “petrostate autocracies” in the Gulf, oil producers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But no, the Biden administration could not drop its vendetta against MBS.
On February 9, 2022, the Biden administration naively thought that it could circumvent MBS by dealing with his father, the aging King Salman. Hence, Biden called Salman and asked him to pump more oil. Good luck with that, MBS must have thought. Even an intern in Middle East politics knows that MBS had been the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since at least 2016, and that attempts to circumvent him would not only fail, but deepen the cleavage between Washington and Riyadh. I commented on this Biden faux pas here.
Then Biden decided to build a global coalition against Putin.
On February 24, 2022, President Biden declared Putin a “pariah on the world stage,” a proclamation which should have become a U.S. government policy, except that Secretary Blinken did not want the isolation of Putin to interfere with courting Tehran. Hence, the second day, Blinken carved an exception to Biden’s announcement on Putin’s pariah status. “There may be some areas in which the fulfillment of our national security priorities and imperatives require us to engage, to coexist at some level, with the Russian Federation,” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said on February 25.
When the Biden administration carves the Middle East as an exception for dealing with Putin, how does Washington expect US Mid East allies to behave around Putin? The answer is, these allies will not break with Putin on their issues unless America does it first. Hence, America’s Middle East allies continued their business as usual with Moscow.
On March 3, 2022, Putin called MBS. The two agreed to maintain level of energy production within the OPEC+ oil cartel (instead of MBS pumping more to keep prices low).
On March 5, 2022, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet visited Moscow and met with Putin. Israel was conducting a mediation effort with Ukraine, but more importantly for Jerusalem, it has to coordinate with Putin in its strikes in Syria aimed at preventing the Iran regime from establishing the military infrastructure required for its militias, like Hezbollah, to attack Israel.
On March 8, perhaps realizing that his Middle East policy was a failure, and with energy prices rising, President Biden finally decided to call MBS and UAE’s de facto ruler Muhammad Bin Zayed (MBZ), calls that both refused to take, giving the same Washington pundits who had been calling for the US to give Saudi Arabia and the UAE the boot the chance to renew their calls to punish US Gulf allies, presumably over their stance on Putin.
Rogin, not known for being particularly pro-Iran or anti-UAE or Saudi Arabia, has become the last to join a chorus that thinks America should open up to Iran and forget Saudi Arabia. Their argument is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have nowhere else to go for defense purposes, and will therefore come begging no matter how Washington treats them.
But MBS and MBZ have probably learnt their lesson from the way the US has handled Iran over the past half century.
When Iran’s ruler Shah Reza Pahlavi was America’s closest ally, the Carter administration was on his case on issues relating to human rights until the Shah broke down and was replaced by the Islamist regime that declared itself America’s staunchest enemy. With the Islamist regime, America became so deferring to Tehran, looking the other way on its human rights abuses and drive to acquire a nuclear weapon. The more anti-America Iran became, the more desperate Democratic administrations looked to accommodating Tehran.
When reviewing how Democratic administrations dealt with its ally the Shah, how they deal with America’s allies — Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE today — then comparing this to how the Democrats fall in love with America’s enemies — Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Cuba — there is one lesson for MBS and MBZ. Democrats don’t really like America’s allies. They tend to befriend America’s enemies.