On Wednesday, the Saudis opened their annual conference in Riyadh, officially called the Future Investment Initiative, but commonly referred to as Davos in the desert. That moniker had always annoyed the people who run the World Economic Forum and its signature event in Davos, Switzerland because – like most of the world that cares about protecting their brand – they didn't want much to do with Saudi Arabia and his crown prince in recent years.
However, this trend could come to an end. In Riyadh things are going as usual again. A veritable A-list of Wall Street and private equity titans flew in for the event this week. Gone are the days when financial services industry leaders stayed away for fear of the reputational costs of associating with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The remains of the journalist and former courtier of the Saudi power centers have yet to be found. But investors have now decided that business needs to be done.
They are betting that the stated commitment of human rights organizations, journalists, and a relatively bipartisan group of US lawmakers to hold Saudi Arabia accountable doesn't mean much – and they may be right.
In Washington, it is widely expected that the Saudis will have a tough time with the new Biden administration. During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden and fellow campaigner Kamala Harris vowed that they would “reassess our (America's) relationship with the Kingdom, end US support for the war in Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and ensure America does not adhere to its values Door checked sell guns or buy oil. “After Biden was sworn in as president earlier this month, he kept that promise when he – at least temporarily – frozen arms sales to Saudi Arabia approved by his predecessor.
Saudi Arabia is a problematic ally. In the past five years, his crown prince launched a futile military campaign in Yemen that killed and injured tens of thousands. He oversaw the hit team that dismembered Khashoggi, oversaw the arrest and abuse of reformers, and led an international embargo on Qatar (which is also not an exemplary ally, but a critical security partner for the United States). There are also questions about Saudi Arabia and the role of its citizens in the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. As much as the Saudis want the Americans to forget, there were 15 young Saudi men on those planes, not Qataris.
It is true that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman oversaw major social changes in Saudi Arabia that have improved the lives of its citizens, but that does not detract from the perfectly reasonable desire to hold the Saudis accountable for its many violations. However, this can be more difficult than it seems.
There was never a chance global business would write off Saudi Arabia. Sure, the CEOs stayed away for a while, but even at the height of outrage over Jamal Khashoggi's brutal murder, Saudi Arabia remained a place where people believed they could make money. And since this is a prerequisite for financiers, consultants, and oil companies – and companies providing all kinds of services – Mohammed bin Salman was forced to spend some time in the penalty area, but he was never made the international pariah of some hoped he would be. Yes, the Saudis have a number of economic problems, the wisdom of vanity projects like the potential high-tech city of Neom escapes most people who look at it and Riyadh's efforts to restructure the labor market and establish the institutions of a market economy are enormous and difficult tasks – but the Saudis still have the largest economy in the Middle East, making them an attractive partner for those who turned up in Riyadh for the Future Investment Initiative.
It must be argued that just because business leaders want to partner with the Saudis, it does not mean that the US government is obliged to do the same. That's true enough – but that doesn't mean Washington is simply free to do what it wants. It faces the constraints of geopolitics. At the same time as industry leaders in Riyadh rubbed their shoulders, the US military increased its presence in Saudi Arabia in the event of conflict with Iran. US military planners see Saudi Arabia as an important partner in Iran policy. This includes the potential Iranian policies under scrutiny by the Biden government, whether it involves re-entering the 2015 nuclear deal or negotiating a new deal. For both to work, the government will need Riyadh to back the deal, which means American negotiators will need to be sensitive to Saudi concerns.
In relation to Iran and the geopolitics of the region, the war is in Yemen. The Saudi attack on its southern neighbor, which began in 2015, has achieved everything that the intervention should prevent. Because of the ill-conceived and poorly executed military operations in Riyadh, the Iranians now actually have a relationship with Ansar Allah (aka the Houthis), and Saudi Arabia is less secure. The war is not to be won and the Saudis have to get out. It remains to be seen if they can do this without US help. The Saudis would no doubt like this aid in the form of enhanced border security, including weapon systems.
This will be a difficult decision for the government as the Saudis in Washington are highly animated and the Biden Harris team has declared itself to be reassessing US relations with Saudi Arabia. One argument they could use to respond is: Fuck them. Let them figure out how to get out of their own swamp. That's understandable, but not wise. It is in America's interest that the Saudis leave Yemen and maintain good relations with Washington. Like it or not, Saudi Arabia is Washington’s main interlocutor in the region, and an American deal with Iran must at least partially run through Yemen.
But should the United States cut off the Saudis from what they seem to love most about America – its fancy weapon systems? This is no longer in the realm of theory. The Biden government's ongoing review of Saudi Arabia will assess how American weapons are used, particularly how many civilians it has killed and maimed in the process. In view of the damage caused by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, such accounting is reasonable. But even if it allows Americans to take further steps to end their complicity in the Yemen debacle in Saudi Arabia, it should also be recognized that it will not end this war.
In all discussions about "accountability" the problem of defining what it would actually look like is lost. Do the critics of Saudi Arabia want the Crown Prince to be replaced or in the dock? The United States will not choose the leader of Saudi Arabia. Even if the US intelligence agencies publish what they know about the murder of Khashoggi – as the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, has requested and as the new director of the national intelligence service, Avril Haines, has promised In of their written response to questions from senators during their confirmation hearings, Mohammed bin Salman will be crown prince the next day and the day after and the day after, and so on. Undoubtedly, this would lead to international turmoil, forcing those currently in Davos in the desert to stay away for a few years or more. But they will find their way back to Saudi Arabia as long as they anticipate this is still good for business.
The chatter about accountability also lacks the possible consequences of its imposition. This does not mean rejecting the idea of calling the Saudis and refusing to get weapons out of control, but rather weighing the costs and benefits of such an approach. The Saudis may prove unwilling to work with the United States on a new nuclear deal with Iran, or even try to undermine one. Riyadh may feel encouraged to turn to Washington’s competitors. Washington people may dismiss this as an idle threat, but the Chinese have a lot to offer, and the Russians are particularly good at taking advantage of the stress between the United States and its traditional partners in the region. At the very least, closer ties between Saudis, Chinese and Russians can make things more difficult for the United States, especially since competition for great powers is now seen as the framework for American foreign policy.
On the other hand, US policymakers may not care about the downside risks that come from holding the Saudis accountable. Energy resources from the Persian Gulf are still important to the United States, but no longer as they used to be, reducing the urgency of the Middle East and the importance of close ties with countries like Saudi Arabia. The stakes may not be that high anymore, which gives the Biden team more room to maneuver. It just seems like few have worked through exactly what accountability means at Beltway until now. That is regrettable, because foreign policy through admonition is likely to fail.