The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I know Saudi repression. Biden should save ties with the kingdom — with conditions.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wears a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus as he attends the Saudi Cup award ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in February 2021. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Khalid Aljabri is a health-tech entrepreneur and a cardiologist.

I am a victim of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ruthless regime. Two of my siblings are being held hostage in Saudi Arabia, and my family is tormented by a brutal intimidation campaign. Yet I remain a proponent of a healthy U.S.-Saudi partnership. President Biden could and should salvage the relationship — but not at all costs.

Biden came into office planning to recalibrate U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. But despite snubbing the crown prince (widely known as MBS) and releasing an intelligence report that found him culpable for the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration’s policy toward the kingdom remained incomprehensible. The recent meeting between CIA Director William J. Burns and MBS, followed by Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman’s visit to Washington last week, hints at a brewing rapprochement.

Read this piece in Arabic.

Any reconciliation that includes a Biden-MBS interaction and renewed U.S. security guarantees, however, must be conditioned on Saudi compliance with American interests and values, beginning with raising oil production and committing to accountability for Khashoggi’s gruesome murder.

For a start, instead of siding with Moscow, Riyadh needs to fulfill its obligations to Washington stemming from the tacit, decades-long security-for-oil arrangement. It should increase its crude output to support U.S. interests in Ukraine and to lower energy prices, which have soared in recent months. Even before raising oil production, the kingdom should help European countries wean off Russian oil by diverting crude exports to Europe at discounted prices. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, as a de facto leader of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), should exclude Russia from any future OPEC oil production agreement after the current “OPEC+” deal between petroleum-producing nations expires in several months.

Khashoggi began writing for The Post a week after MBS arrested a group of his intellectual friends. Khashoggi warned of an increasingly oppressive Saudi regime long before he became its most notable victim. Without direct sanctions on the Saudi crown prince, there will never be explicit accountability and a scripted apology from MBS will be meaningless. The nearest thing to accountability for the murder is for MBS to release the detainees Khashoggi advocated for and halt his targeting of dissidents abroad. If Khashoggi were alive, this is what he would have demanded; this is what Biden should be asking for now.

Additionally, Biden should use positive inducements to alter the crown prince’s repressive behavior. MBS, driven by self-interest, would accommodate U.S. requests on human rights if accompanied with incentives and devoid of humiliation. Craving American reembracement, MBS should be made to understand that allowing American hostages in Saudi Arabia to return home is a prerequisite for him to visit the United States again.

If Saudi Arabia agrees to U.S. rapprochement conditions, Biden should reset the relationship by hosting King Salman and other Gulf leaders in another U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council summit at Camp David. In such a meeting, the United States can pacify its Gulf partners ahead of a potential return to the Iran deal, revive the importance of the GCC’s collective responsibility in regional security and pitch a rebalanced institutional partnership that is based on synced security, energy, diplomatic, economic and trade cooperation.

Alternatively, Biden could make the same pitch to Gulf leaders at the GCC headquarters in Riyadh ​if he visits the region, as expected, in June. However, a presidential stop in Saudi Arabia that is not preceded by increased oil production or visible human rights concessions would be unpalatable.

Following a reset, for any U.S.-Saudi reconciliation to be durable, Biden must restore the institutional nature of the relationship, which has spanned seven different Saudi monarchs. An expedited confirmation of Michael Ratney as Washington’s ambassador to Riyadh would serve that purpose. The highly personalized ties between the Trump administration and MBS were destructive, but Biden would occasionally benefit from dispatching a designated emissary, someone with competence and gravitas who the Saudis believe has the ear of the president — an anti-Jared Kushner.

As Biden attempts to recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi partnership, he should not capitulate to Riyadh’s exploitation of the Ukrainian crisis and high energy prices by making one-way American concessions. Nor should Biden give in to the demands of a concerted Saudi public relations offensive that blames him for the souring relationship, burdens his administration with the onus of reconciliation and recasts the murderous MBS as an innocent victim.

Regardless of what the anticipated reconciliation entails, Washington should be making as many asks as Riyadh. Ultimately, both sides know that, whatever time-limited oil leverage Saudi Arabia is using, the United States will always have the upper hand.

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