Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman took his time before congratulating US President-elect Joe Biden on his recent election victory. This was no accident: for the past four years the Crown Prince has carried out a fruitless bombing campaign in Yemen, may have got away with murder, and has initiated a secret uranium processing program with China. Progressive members of the US Democratic Caucus will soon urge Biden to abandon the US alliance with Saudi Arabia, but Biden should oppose this plea. Leaving allies rarely leads them to better behavior. Instead, Biden should form a coalition of Western allies and Middle Eastern states – including Saudi Arabia – that would give the United States more leverage to prevent the Kingdom from acquiring nuclear weapons and violating human rights.
Republican and Democratic Congressmen are fed up with Saudi Arabia. Last year, President Donald Trump vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have blocked arms sales to the country in response to his bombing campaign in Yemen. Every Democrat in Congress who voted has backed the law, but especially Trump allies like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. In his criticism of Saudi Arabia, Biden went even further than most members of Congress. In November 2019, during a primary democratic debate, Biden said he would “make it very clear that we are not … selling more arms” to Saudi Arabia, which would “make them … the pariah they are”.
It makes sense to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the prosecution of nuclear weapons and the committing of human rights abuses. The question is how to do it. Making the kingdom a pariah state will not curb its nuclear ambitions or its human rights abuses.
If Washington wants reform in Riyadh, it should consider what worries Saudi Arabia most – America’s abandonment. The Saudi government’s fear of leaving has its roots in the Arab Spring, which began almost a decade ago. At the time, then-US President Barack Obama’s administration supported pro-democracy protesters in Egypt as an alleged US ally – and dictator – Hosni Mubarak, who stubbornly held onto power. Members of the Saudi monarchy realized that it was possible that they too could be betrayed.
The Saudi fears have since metastasized. The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal was seen in the UK as an attempt by the US to betray Saudi Arabia and befriend Iran. Riyadh prefers Trump to Obama, also because Trump ignores his human rights violations and has proven to be more aggressive against Iran. But even Trump mocked King Salman about his country’s dependence on the United States: “King – we protect you,” he told the Führer in 2018. “Without us, you couldn’t be there for two weeks.”
Recent congressional pressures to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia only cemented Riyadh fears of being abandoned. So it is no coincidence that the Crown Prince launched a secret, China-backed nuclear program and sees the continued Iranian influence in Yemen as an existential threat. Along with many Saudi elites, he increasingly believes that a relationship with China – especially one that allows Saudi Arabia to procure its own nuclear arsenal – makes more sense than an ongoing dependence on Washington.
If the United States does not develop a new approach, this scenario could easily lead to a regional nuclear stalemate: Saudi nuclear weapons targeting Iran, Iranian nuclear weapons targeting Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, making their own nuclear technologies, and Israel nervously keeping an eye on its nuclear button.
If the Biden government turns Saudi Arabia into a pariah state, the kingdom’s behavior is unlikely to improve – even if it doesn’t purchase an atomic bomb immediately. The other US-sanctioned pariah states – Syria, Iran, North Korea and Cuba – are among the worst human rights abusers (and nuclear proliferators) in the world. Ostracism did not change them, and it will not change Saudi Arabia.
If the US turns its back on Saudi Arabia, its ambitions about nuclear weapons or its human rights abuses will not be chilled, demonstrating a long-term commitment to the region. What could alleviate Saudi insecurities is to encourage Riyadh to join a new league of Western and Middle Eastern nations that are working multilaterally together on military, energy, economic and social development issues. Even if the coalition started off a bit small – just the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, and smaller Arab states like Jordan, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Tunisia – it would show that the United States and their western allies will not surrender the kingdom to Iran or other external powers anytime soon. That alone should allay Riyadh’s fears enough to make nuclear weapons and indiscriminate bombing campaigns far less attractive.
With a new joint regional training center, the pact would train and equip the armed forces of the member states to make them militarily more self-sufficient. If a member state were attacked, the West would promise to support it with reconnaissance, air power and special operators – but not with ground forces. Washington used this leaner approach effectively in the first Gulf War and in the successful fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
Such an agreement should also focus private sector funding and expertise in the US and Europe on major infrastructure, development and entrepreneurship projects attractive to Middle Eastern countries. With the United States’ International Development Finance Corporation now able to tie loan guarantees and financing directly to Washington’s foreign policy objectives, large investment plans of this type are more viable than in the past.
Western countries could also use development banks to support investments in non-nuclear energy alternatives such as renewables, natural gas and pipeline projects. In the sun- and gas-soaked Middle East, these are far cheaper sources of electricity than nuclear power reactors.
Diplomatically, the coalition would create a forum for coalition members to resolve regional energy and territorial disputes. In return, Saudi Arabia and other members of the Middle East Coalition would pledge not to withdraw from the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, abandon activities that could be used to manufacture nuclear explosives, and abide by an agreed set of human rights norms for military operations .
While it may start small, the coalition should have bigger aspirations. Israel’s rapprochements with Arab states could open the door to becoming the group’s first unsubstantiated member, and the promotion of Egypt and Turkey would follow.
Like the Marshall Plan’s invitation to the Soviet Union, the door must remain open for Iran to join the group. In order to join Iran, Iran – and all other potential member states in the region – would have to commit to withdrawing enrichment or reprocessing activities, ceasing military operations against other member states and supporting proxy warfare. Tehran has so far shown no interest in fulfilling the latter two conditions. Still, the coalition should highlight the economic benefits of a non-nuclear future and the security benefits of greater reluctance. In the meantime, the pact would enable a multilateral approach that Arab states and Israel need to effectively counter Iranian adventurism.
Ultimately, to really make the coalition a success, Washington must prove that the pact can survive regardless of who is in the White House. In an ideal world, the US Senate would secure the pact as a treaty. Regardless, Congress should provide long-term funding for the United States’ contribution to the pact. Members of Congress could get the ball rolling by drafting a bipartisan resolution in support of the plan. If Saudi Arabia were convinced that the United States remains committed to stability in the Middle East, Washington would be in a far better position to deter Riyadh and other capitals from their worst instincts. When all is said and done, the Crown Prince might even regret waiting so long to congratulate Biden on his most recent election victory.