On February 26, the Biden government finally published an intelligence report detailing the US intelligence services' assessment of the central role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. US President Joe Biden, who had previously dismissed the US's longtime ally as a "pariah" and pledged to reassess US relations with Riyadh, has the conditions for a possible showdown with one of the world's largest oil producers and a key created stability in the center east when the Biden government tried to escape the region and pivot to Asia.
Foreign Policy spoke to David Rundell about what underpins US-Saudi Arabia relations, what Biden and former President Donald Trump understood right and wrong, and what future bilateral relations will look like. Rundell, a 30-year US diplomatic veteran in the Middle East, spent 15 years in Saudi Arabia. He is the author of Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at a Crossroads.
This interview has been edited for the sake of clarity and clarity.
Foreign policy: What impact will the publication of the Khashoggi report have on US-Saudi Arabia relations?
David Rundell: Oh, I think this is negatively affecting the relationship. The Saudis have made statements that they found the report inaccurate and unacceptable that it clearly does not help the relationship. Congress called for the report to be published, so this was not a real choice, but there is no doubt that the publication of such a report is damaging the relationship. And the relationship is important, so publishing the report harms American interests.
FP: How would you characterize the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia under Trump?
DR: The American-Saudi relationship has existed for 75 years. It is defined by a number of common interests. These interests provide, if you will, guard rails on the sides of the relationship. We both have an interest in stable oil markets and reasonable oil prices. They want the Arab-Israeli dispute to end. You never really took part in the Arab-Israeli wars. They have spearheaded the Arab world in an attempt to find a solution, with both King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein putting forward peace plans, which King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud reiterated.
There has been extensive cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States on counter-terrorism for the past 20 years. In recent years the Saudis have begun promoting a much more moderate view of Islam, and that is important because, if you will, they are taking control of the face-off pulpit in Mecca. So the message that comes from this pulpit, which more than a billion people hear every day, makes a difference.
So, in many cases, our interests are pretty much aligned, and the real reason is that we are both status quo powers. Saudi Arabia and the United States basically have a lot to lose. We like peace and stability. So these are the interests that are being reconciled, and they provide certain guard rails for the relationship.
On the other hand, our foreign policy is always determined by a balance between our interests and our values. And when it comes to values, the Saudis share very little of our values. Almost nobody. You are a religious, conservative monarchy and we are a liberal, secular republic. So our values are not closely aligned, and that creates a constant tension in the relationship that is, if you will, like a little ball and always bouncing between those two guard rails I was talking about.
Different administrations therefore place different emphasis on values. Some are very interest-oriented, others are very value-oriented. For me the middle of the road is the way to go. I do not think that an American foreign policy that is clearly or entirely interests-based, or that is entirely values-based, will be successful in the long run. You have to find a path that is somewhere in the middle.
I think people would argue that the Trump administration was extremely extremely interest-oriented, and it seems that the Biden administration might be overly value-oriented. And as I said at the beginning, I don't think this is helpful to American interests.
FP: But does America still need Saudi Arabia as it did in the past? How could that change in the future?
DR: The first thing I would say is that nothing will change about the importance of Saudi Arabia and the global oil markets. The reason is that tomorrow the United States and Europe could go completely carbon neutral and not be able to import Saudi oil, but the rest of the world still does, and the idea that the United States won't need oil is just naive. I mean, the United States is going to need oil to run its economy for a very long time. Even if everyone has an electric car, there are still many things that we need oil for. And oil is traded in a global market, so the price of oil in the global market affects what we pay for energy here in the US.
More specifically, high oil prices have harmed the poor and poor countries. When oil prices rise, growth is much more affected in less developed countries than in a highly diversified and developed economy like the United States. So this is bad news if something happened to Saudi oil production, and it would certainly affect our strategic allies in Asia such as South Korea or Japan, who have to import oil from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. So I think that in terms of energy, we will need Saudi stability for a long time.
What you are looking for is stability in Saudi Arabia because the Saudi regime is responsibly managing its oil production. They are unique in the world as they have excess capacity that they can turn on and off as needed to make up for natural disasters or a war. So you provide a pillow. And if you lose stability in Saudi Arabia, you can very easily lose this pillow. If Saudi Arabia's production of 10 million barrels a day were to be taken off the market, no one would be able to catch up and you would see a huge rise in prices.
Second, you also need investments. And again, the Saudis have done a good job investing and keeping their production growing to meet growing demand. Iran didn't do that. Venezuela can no longer produce as much oil as it did 20 years ago because it has not modernized and invested. The Saudis did that.
The last thing I would say is that some people, I think very naively, say, "Well, if the Saudi regime collapses, it wouldn't make a difference because whoever takes over would still have to sell their oil." Well, as I pointed out earlier, number one, we don't know that the next regime can be politically stable and physically produce it. And number two, we don't know if they would commit the investment to keep it going for a long time. Above all, the successor regime to the monarchy will not be a liberal, secular democracy. It will be some kind of Islamic regime. If it were taken over by force, it would be something like Al Qaeda or ISIS. If it were adopted through elections, it would be something like the Muslim Brotherhood. And these groups don't share our interests or our values, so the idea that ISIS or Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood could be responsible for Saudi Aramco and getting all the money from Saudi Aramco is not a situation I think everyone is in Washington would really like to think about it. I mean, you can hardly imagine what these people would do with the money they would get from running the Saudi oil industry. It would not help us, let's put it that way, and it would not support moderate regimes like Jordan or Egypt or Bahrain or, quite frankly, Tunisia or even Morocco, to which the Saudis contribute with their oil reserves.
I think number one, interest in oil will remain. As I said, the Saudis have a clear interest in promoting the Arab-Israeli dispute. You have made many gestures towards Israel, and I know that behind the scenes you have quietly supported other countries making peace with Israel and that they will go too if there is consensus in the Arab world. They cannot really move forward because of their role as protectors of Islam, but they certainly tacitly encourage others to do so. And Bahrain and the UAE would not have signed the Abraham Accords if the Saudis had violently protested against them.
FP: Where does this relationship go from here? The United States is reassessing and Saudi Arabia has its own reform plan and many questions about its own future.
DR: Saudi Arabia is more stable than many people have predicted for many years. Today it is less stable than many people assume because it is going through very traumatic changes – changes that are going in a direction that we have long advised them to do. The social reforms in Saudi Arabia are pretty profound. Women's empowerment has become an important development in Saudi Arabia. Women can now not only drive, but also do sports. They abolished most of the guardianship rules, which meant that women needed their father's or husband's permission to go to college, travel abroad, get a passport, open a bank account, start a business, have a cesarean section – Get delivery, you name it. They had to have written permission. That's all gone. The religious police used to be on the street. Now they have been taken off the road. These are real changes that are taking place in Saudi Arabia.
So these changes are very real. There were people who resisted them. They needed someone with a certain level of recklessness to get these things through. Other kings had not been ready to take over the religious police. Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were ready. You have also adopted corruption. Then they try to reform the economy by diversifying it away from oil, which is not easy, but they are making more sustainable and successful efforts than in the past. You are not trying to democratize Saudi Arabia. If anything, they have gone in the opposite direction on the political front, but their economic and social changes are real and we should support them.
Saudi Arabia was stable for four reasons. First, they had the historical legitimacy of the royal family who founded the kingdom. Second, they had a successful succession management mechanism. Third, they maintained solidarity among the elite. And fourth, they provided reasonably competent government for the people, which really meant security, prosperity and social change at a pace that most people would accept.
But all of these things are now being challenged by these changes they are introducing, and so the place is less stable than it was. So our efforts to genuinely demonize the Crown Prince, who is very popular with most people in Saudi Arabia, are not contributing to the stability of Saudi Arabia. If you destabilize the Saudi monarchy, you won't end up with this Canadian parliament. You'll end up with something worse. So I think we need to be careful and I think what we've been doing so far has damaged the relationship. And I find that unfortunate.
I want to make it clear what I am saying: the United States cannot ignore, let me be clear, the United States cannot ignore the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It cannot ignore the detention of Saudi dissidents. We cannot ignore the humanitarian costs of the war in Yemen. This is part of who we are and we need to support our own values.
But we need to find a way to keep in touch with Saudi Arabia to advance our interests as well as our values. If we break off our relationship – and Biden said he would treat the Saudis as a "pariah" – it will not help our interests or our values. One criticism of the Trump administration was that it neglected traditional alliances. The Saudi Alliance has long been a good alliance. We don't have to destroy that. We need to rebuild our alliances with some people in Europe while not destroying the alliances in the Middle East.