The Moral Case for Restoring U.S.-Saudi Relations

June 30, 2022 | Robert Satloff
About the author: Robert Satloff is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of several books on the Middle East, including Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands.

Next month, President Biden plans to visit Saudi Arabia, where he will no doubt meet with its de-facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS)—despite widespread objections (voiced previously by the president himself) that the kingdom should be isolated because of its dismal human-rights record. Of particular concern to those making this argument is the killing by Saudi agents of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Robert Satloff, however, argues that Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia isn’t an abdication, but an embrace, of moral responsibility:

What is so important to U.S. interests that it not only merits Biden’s travel to the kingdom but demands it? It is the fundamental decision by the leadership of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to end its support and funding of Islamist radicalism, to stop its decades-long export of extremist ideology, and to focus instead on a positive agenda of human development at home and the development of a relationship with Muslims around the world that urges them to have a healthy respect for the laws and norms of the countries in which they live. This is huge.

A word of context. . . . Dating from at least the 1978 takeover of the Mecca mosque by the ideological forebears of Osama bin Laden, Saudi strategy has tried to outflank the extremists by outdoing them, financing people and institutions that rivaled the extremists in their extremism. In reality, this was a protection racket that required the kingdom to pay an ever-greater price to stay just one step ahead of the radicals. As such, it was doomed to failure—and when all those young Saudi men rammed jetliners into the World Trade Center towers, it failed in horrific fashion.

Extricating themselves from the grip of extremism has been, for Saudis, an agonizingly slow process. The . . . most dramatic changes have come in the last five years, since King Salman elevated his son Mohammad as crown prince.

So, yes, President Biden, go to Saudi Arabia and shake MBS’s hand. . . . After all our country has been through these past 21 years, isn’t the real moral imperative not to shun MBS but to do everything in your power as president to ensure that the Saudi Arabia of tomorrow is definitively, conclusively, and irretrievably different than the Saudi Arabia of the past?

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