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The truth of what Biden can — and can’t — achieve with Saudi Arabia

Biden has limited leverage, but if he uses it properly, he can push Saudi Arabia to gradually improve on human rights

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Biden on his arrival at al-Salam palace in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 15. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/AP)
7 min

In an April 2022 interview with journalist Graeme Wood, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was asked whether President Biden misunderstands something about him. The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia responded, “Simply, I do not care.” He suggested that Biden cannot alienate the Saudis because it would undermine the president’s position in the Middle East. Then Mohammed shrugged and seemed to move on.

To some extent, Mohammed is correct. Biden does lack significant geopolitical leverage over the Saudis. The president needs the crown prince to boost oil production to reduce gas prices at home and to ignore overtures from China and Russia. Yet Mohammed cannot completely shrug off Biden, because the protection offered by the U.S. military is still crucial to Saudi Arabia as it eyes threats from Tehran, such as the ongoing insurgency by Iran-backed Houthis out of Yemen, which has yet to be officially resolved.

Debates about whether Biden should take a hard line rhetorically against Saudi human rights violations or shun Mohammed altogether matter far less than how he uses the United States’ limited leverage. Nothing Biden does will improve the Saudi position on human rights immediately. But history indicates that wielding his leverage right will lead to progress on this front over time.

Nothing makes this clearer than the way President John F. Kennedy wielded Saudi security needs to push Crown Prince Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud to abolish slavery. The episode illustrated the difficulty of upholding natural rights throughout the kingdom. It also exposed that it is not charisma, charm or forthright language that produces change on this score, but rather the savvy use of America’s geopolitical leverage.

The situation that Kennedy faced escalated when a civil war broke out in Yemen in 1962. On Sept. 26, young nationalist revolutionary Col. Abdullah Sallal forced the Yemeni monarch, Imam Muhammad al-Badr, from the Dar al-Bashair palace. Many viewed the move as part of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regional campaign to topple royalist regimes and spread Arab nationalism. Disturbing reports quickly reached Washington that Sallal and his allies had displayed “severed heads” of the deposed Iman’s family along the palace walls.

The fall of Yemen’s monarchy — combined with these grisly rumors — struck fear in the Saudi ruling family. The Saudi royals worried they were next. As luck would have it, only nine days after the Yemeni monarch fell, Faisal arrived at the White House for a previously scheduled meeting with Kennedy — the first meeting between the two leaders. The Saudi crown prince came hoping to secure military support for his regime.

This desire gave Kennedy leverage, and he came prepared to wield it. In their Oct. 5 meeting, Kennedy pushed for “modernization and reform.” Robert Komer, a member of the National Security Council, had impressed upon Kennedy that “deliberate, controlled internal reform is the best antidote to Nasserism,” a message the president underscored throughout the meeting with Faisal. Kennedy assumed that the cornerstone of this new phase of Washington and Riyadh’s strategic relationship would be contingent upon the Saudi government undertaking such efforts — particularly those related to ending slavery in the kingdom.

Regional and international actors had criticized and lampooned the Saudis since the early 1950s for their continued ties to slavery. The British Anti-Slavery Society had used several United Nations committees to garner international interest on this issue. And the Saud family’s continued enslavement of thousands was a convenient weapon deployed by its Arab Cold War adversaries — most notably Nasser, who gave sanctuary to Saudi dissidents who had spoken out against slavery, such as Nasir al-Said and Prince Talal. These developments empowered Kennedy to sell the abolition of slavery as not only something the United States wanted, but also as something good for Saudi security.

The pitch from Kennedy was simple: Reform your kingdom and mute the bad press, in addition to securing American aid.

After a luncheon, the two men retired to the White House residence to discuss improving U.S.-Saudi relations.

During their talk, Kennedy proposed several initiatives to strengthen ties and propel Saudi Arabia along the path of modernization, including a “civic action” program, economic assistance, the continuation of the U.S. Military Training Mission (USMTM) — and, most important, the abolition of slavery.

The civic action program would help foster “Saudi Arabian progress.” Earlier in the year, a U.S. economic survey team had concluded that the Saudi government did not need capital but rather technical assistance from private and public agencies to support a development program. Kennedy lobbied the crown prince for assistance in implementing this emerging development program, which he promised would help alleviate the kingdom’s economic woes.

The program also offered another benefit to the kingdom: a politically palatable way to retain an American military presence in the region. It would demonstrate Kennedy’s willingness to deploy troops to the kingdom at a “psychologically critical time,” when doing so would send an unmistakable message to potential opponents of the Saudi government.

But the Saudi government could argue that this presence was about building roads, not militarism or interfering in Saudi sovereignty. That was important because a year earlier, King Saud bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud had publicly criticized the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia to appease regional Arab nationalist demands.

But for the United States to offer up this support and build a closer relationship with Faisal, slavery had to go. Kennedy repeatedly expressed to Saudi leaders that internal changes were the best safeguard against external threats, particularly Nasserism, and that outlawing slavery was an essential first step.

Faisal promised Kennedy that he would work to improve the Saudi image at home and abroad. Likewise, upon concluding his private session with Kennedy, the crown prince expressed to his interpreter, Isa K. Sabbagh, “I started feeling my lungs again,” which meant the pressure had been relieved after better understanding U.S. global commitments. While Faisal did not get all the assurances he wished for, he left knowing he had a friend in Washington.

Likewise, according to Parker T. Hart, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time, “Kennedy got something from Faisal which was very important. That was a program of changes in the government of his country, which were badly needed and, in particular, the outlawing of slavery.”

Less than a month later, Faisal announced the abolition of slavery. This proclamation appeased human rights activists from London to Lebanon (many of whom had worked for decades for this outcome).

Kennedy achieved this rare human rights victory in Saudi Arabia because of his geopolitical leverage. Faisal had to care about what Kennedy thought — the Saud family’s rule hung in the balance.

Biden does not have as much leverage as Kennedy did in 1962, but the Iran-backed Houthi rebels have created a fair amount of anxiety for the Saud family. While the seven-year conflict is on ice thanks to a U.N.-mediated truce, the current Saudi crown prince surely cannot forget that in March, Washington approved sales of “missiles and an anti-ballistic defense system … including 280 air-to-air missiles” to Saudi Arabia after Houthi drone strikes blasted six locations in the kingdom, including oil sites. Mohammed may not feel the same urgency and fear as Faisal did in 1962, but he still needs U.S. military assistance.

Human rights progress rarely moves swiftly in Saudi Arabia. But history shows that advancements can be made. Unlike many other presidents, Biden has been consistent on his human rights position toward the Saudis. However, one must remain realistic. The crown prince won’t accept blame for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yet Biden can take a page from Kennedy by reminding the crown prince that the vital security aid the United States still supplies to the Saudis — coupled with increasing human rights and fundamental freedoms — “promotes stability and strengthens [Saudi] national security.” In other words, augmenting human rights will help achieve two of Saudi Arabia’s goals: more easily procuring U.S. aid and improving the worldwide image of the kingdom.