The dictionary defines “realpolitik” as “policy based on power rather than ideals or principles.” We are about to see a version of this in action when President Biden visits Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.
Critics of the kingdom have been dreading that moment. They believe — and to be clear, I also believe — that MBS has blood on his hands, because of what the CIA described as his authorization of the Saudi operation that murdered Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018.
This embrace of the Saudi leader has been coming toward us for many months. The reasons include the pragmatic concerns you would expect: MBS will probably rule Saudi Arabia for decades; the United States has security and financial interests in maintaining its long partnership with the kingdom; Saudi Arabia is an ally in a common effort to contain Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region.
Two new factors proved decisive for the Biden White House: The first was the war in Ukraine, and Biden’s need for Saudi help in buffering the oil market; the second was Israel’s strong desire that Biden normalize relations with MBS and the kingdom as part of a broad realignment whose shorthand is the Abraham Accords.
“We believe that Saudi Arabia is an important actor in the region and beyond,” a senior Israeli official told me on Tuesday. “We very much support closer relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, in the context of stabilizing the region, containing Iran, normalizing relations with Israel and stabilizing the energy market.”
Israeli security contacts with Saudi Arabia are already extensive, but they are mostly invisible, and that isn’t likely to change soon. Biden’s trip to the Middle East raised some hopes for a three-way photo opportunity — Biden, Bennett and MBS — but the time isn’t ripe yet. For now, the main deliverable will probably be a formal Saudi agreement to allow Israeli overflights of the kingdom.
The strong Israeli push for U.S.-Saudi rapprochement is crucial, politically. That’s because Saudi Arabia today has few political supporters in Washington. Despite decades of aggressive lobbying, the kingdom has gradually burned its bridges to Republicans and Democrats, alike. President Donald Trump seemed to reanimate the friendship, but that was hardly a solid base.
The United States’ other major allies seem keen for Washington to renew its relations with Riyadh, too. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron have both visited with MBS in Saudi Arabia. They have encouraged Biden to do the same.
Biden snubbed MBS for many months, refusing last year to make the friendly phone call the Saudi leader wanted — and then demanded. One reason for Biden’s disdain, I suspect, was personal. The two men are as different as chalk and cheese, as the British like to say. Biden was prepared to shake hands at the Group of 20 Summit in Rome this past October, but MBS didn’t show up, sparing Biden an awkward moment.
The Biden-MBS meeting will be part of a broad outreach to the “middle powers,” as they are described by Tom Donilon, a former national security adviser and a close contact of the Biden White House. This included Biden’s trip last month to Asia, the “Summit of the Americas” next week in Los Angeles; the planned trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia later this month, and a NATO summit on June 29 and 30. The aim of all these visits is to bolster U.S. partnerships in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
For advocates of pragmatic foreign policy, an essential question is what the Biden administration will get in exchange for its sit-down with MBS. Ideally, from Washington’s standpoint, the kingdom would break with Russia in the so-called OPEC-Plus producers’ cartel — and agree to produce more oil and support a similar production boost by the United Arab Emirates. That would ease oil prices, boost the global economy and undermine Russia all at once — giving Biden a boost he badly needs.
The Yemen war, perhaps MBS’s bloodiest mistake, is easing, thanks in part to diplomatic efforts by the United States. A truce negotiated with Saudi help is holding, and passenger jets are flying from Sanaa to Amman and, soon, Cairo.
But in terms of any meaningful accountability from MBS on Khashoggi’s death or other important human rights issues, Biden is likely to come away empty-handed. The United States has sanctioned various junior officials, and the Saudi leader himself has offered only bland statements, denying personal responsibility for the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death. He evidently concluded that any greater concessions would be seen at home as a sign of weakness — and are unnecessary.
Realpolitik has its place in foreign policy, but this lack of accountability is a lasting tragedy. In simple terms, MBS got away with it.