The grave stupidity of abandoning Saudi Arabia to China

Mohammed bin Salman
FILE – In this Oct. 23, 2018, file photo, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman smiles as he attends the Future Investment Initiative summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Lured by a long-looming stock offering of Saudi Arabia’s massive state-run oil company, investors and business leaders have returned to the kingdom’s capital for an investment forum overshadowed last year by the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File) Amr Nabil/AP

The grave stupidity of abandoning Saudi Arabia to China

Saudi Arabia’s decision to join the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization underlines the short-sighted foolishness of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy toward Riyadh — namely, Biden’s prioritizing of the interests of one dead man and his concerns over the psychological dysfunction of one other man before the interests of U.S. national security.

The dead man being the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the psychologically dysfunctional man being Crown Prince and de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman.

ISRAEL’S GOVERNMENT MIGHT BE FLAILING BUT THE MOSSAD IS FLOURISHING

Virtually no one in the Mid-East expert areas of the U.S. intelligence or military community thinks Biden’s Saudi policy has been sensible. The generally collective view is that it neglects a historic alliance, presenting America as exactly that which Biden, often credibly, claims former President Donald Trump represented: an unreliable ally. Biden’s Saudi policy has weakened lucrative avenues for new trade and energy cooperation under the rule of law, instead transferring those interests in Beijing’s corrupted favor. It begets the unprecedented improvements to women’s rights and economic diversification (critical for long-term counterterrorism concerns) that have joined alongside the crown prince’s otherwise problematic autocracy. And it forgets the importance of Saudi Arabia’s interest in stabilizing Middle Eastern relations with Israel and allies such as Jordan. Nor does it support key U.S. counterterrorism concerns. Saudi Arabia’s GIP intelligence service has been instrumental, for example, in infiltrating terrorist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda. I understand that the GIP has lost numerous officers and agents on operations specifically designed to serve U.S. interests. But now some of those best U.S. allies are caught between Biden and the crown prince’s anger.

To be clear, what the Saudis, including GIP elements, did to Khashoggi, luring him into their Istanbul Consulate, then torturing him and chopping him up in small pieces, was a brutal outrage. The nature of Saudi command and control, and intelligence analysis on the location and timing of calls from persons close to the crown prince to the kill team in Istanbul, means that the murder was almost certainly conducted under the crown prince’s orders.

That said, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization announcement on Wednesday is a striking indictment for U.S. interests. It underscores how, in the space of just two years, Riyadh has moved from the position of intimate U.S. ally to that of an increasingly complicated partner.

While the Shanghai Cooperation Organization poses a mainly economic rather than security-related challenge to U.S. interests, Beijing and Moscow view the grouping through the explicit prism of undermining American power. U.S. policymakers will thus rightly be concerned that this new Saudi engagement may entail a gradual diversification away from the dollar’s role as the unquestioned global reserve currency. The crown prince is also certainly signaling that it will be the whims of Beijing, rather than those of Washington, that drive Saudi influence over OPEC+ production levels and global oil prices. This move likely portends increased energy cost volatility for American businesses and families. Considering Moscow and Beijing’s influence over Tehran, far more important to Riyadh than the fake detente he just struck with Iran, the SCO probably seems like a place to leverage influence with those willing to reciprocate. America talks, the crown prince might think, Beijing walks.

All this for what?

So the Biden administration can say it tried to satisfy the U.S. media desire for justice over Khashoggi’s brutal murder?

I’m sorry, as the Game of Thrones saying goes, the night is dark and full of terrors. Biden should have prioritized U.S. interests alongside significant, if private, pressure on the crown prince to avoid such atrocities in the future. Instead, Biden entered office and immediately suspended the Trump administration’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He then revoked the designation of the Houthi rebel formations in Yemen as a terrorist organization, even as it was lobbing ballistic missiles into Saudi cities. Oh, and at the same time, Riyadh sees Biden continually beg Iran for diplomacy even as it attempts to assassinate Americans on U.S. soil.

True, there was some justifiable rationale for that revocation, enabling much-needed aid to starving civilians, for example. Still, coming alongside his and Democratic Party criticisms of the Saudi war effort in Yemen, Biden’s action reeked to Riyadh of a personal betrayal. This perceived betrayal would have carried special venom for the crown prince in the context of his existing psychological problems and in its undermining of the pageantry of public respect that is so central Sunni Arab culture.

When Biden rightly tried to right the ship during a July 2022 meeting with the crown prince, his fist-bump outreach came across as half-hearted and only designed to produce Saudi oil output increases. Not surprisingly, it seems only to have further offended the crown prince’s sense of pride. Which is where we are now. With very little influence, with a major power player in Middle Eastern politics and one of the most major power players in global energy economics.

Xi Jinping must be laughing.

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