Saudi Arabia is fundamentally changing, but the US administration under President Joe Biden seems unable to make up its mind on a policy toward the Kingdom.
If the US is interested in remaining the partner of choice for Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration must not wait for a crisis du jour to devise a realistic policy accounting for US interests and the broader geopolitical and global changes.
The US-Saudi relationship, dating back to 1945, has weathered many challenges, while serving the interests of both sides. However, in recent years, Washington’s policy toward the Kingdom has been inconsistent, swinging between extremes. The unintended consequence of this is a subtle diminishing of US soft power with the Saudi public, particularly the younger generation.
The Obama administration had a decidedly frosty relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration, on the other hand, had more of an intense public love affair, while the Biden administration’s policy seems to suffer from a bipolar disorder.
Foreign policy is complex and can be affected by many factors, including party politics. Before the Russian-Ukraine war, Biden’s interest was in turning Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” state. However, the geopolitical reality demanded the US leader change his position in a bid to secure Saudi oil, giving the impression that the Kingdom is an ATM for oil — something that has not been lost on the Saudi public.
My observation is that a good percentage of Saudis admire US systems and values, but political polarization and the dysfunctionality of our institutions are prompting them to question the viability of America’s example. Younger Saudis, in particular, doubt Washington’s genuine interest in being a partner of the “new Saudi Arabia.” Their doubt is not unreasonable.
Biden’s policy toward the Kingdom has been transactional, with a singular focus — security, oil or human rights — depending on the geopolitical or domestic considerations of the moment. The administration must acknowledge that Saudi Arabia is fundamentally changing. Regardless of how this change is portrayed in US media, the silent majority of Saudis credit these changes to the Vision 2030 reform program and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
A case in point, at a dinner with Saudi women, a number proudly pointed to the International Monetary Fund’s recent report suggesting that the Kingdom is “likely to be one of the world’s fastest-growing economies” in 2022.
The report credited Vision 2030 and “sweeping pro-business reforms, improving the business environment, attracting foreign investment and creating private-sector employment” for the growth in the Saudi economy. The increase in non-oil revenue and high oil prices contributed to this growth as well.
Besides its economic impact, Vision 2030 seems to serve as an inspirational platform for Saudi people, particularly the younger generation. Whether all ambitious objectives outlined in 2015 will be accomplished is beside the point. My two years of research in the Kingdom show that Vision 2030 has already succeeded in galvanizing most of the public and capturing the youth’s imagination.
In a culture that values old as “wise,” Vision 2030 gave the younger generation a “voice” in shaping the “new Saudi Arabia,” generating noticeable popular support for the crown prince — something that is unusual in this part of the world.
This is not to say that all is nirvana in the Kingdom — far from it. My own experience suggests that reforms are uneven, and that some institutional and regulatory frameworks need deeper examination. Furthermore, although most Saudis embrace and are excited about the changes taking place in the Kingdom, some are not. Concerns vary from “societal changes are happening too fast,” “women are taking men’s jobs” and “too much freedom” to worries about “losing the Islamic character of the country.”
Saudi Arabia is a complicated political animal requiring a holistic approach to be appropriately analyzed. Albeit opaque and not transparent to the untrained eye, Saudi government decisions balance competing interests while ensuring policies or positions are, in general, aligned with the population’s sentiments.
The government utilizes the media to gauge public reaction to new policies. Not unlike the US, pundits appear on political or social shows explaining or debating policies in question. For example, four or five years ago, the crown prince championed the promotion of moderate and inclusive Islam. A 2021 poll by the Washington Institute showed “39 percent of Saudis support a moderate interpretation of Islam, an increase from 27 percent in 2017.” Any researcher of Saudi TV programs and shows can easily trace such increase in support as the byproduct of the Kingdom’s extensive effort to promote a moderate and inclusive Islam.
Some would argue that US interests in the Middle East are no longer existential, but pretending they are unimportant would be a mistake, as the Russia-Ukraine war has demonstrated. The Biden administration would be wise to reassess its approach and formulate a balanced policy that focuses on shared interests and synchronizes expectations, while juxtaposing a number of considerations that at times might seem contradictory.
Generally speaking, Saudis see the US as a “preferred partner,” but feel the Biden administration has been more interested in condemnation instead of partnering with them — a sentiment mostly expressed by the younger generation. Losing currency with young Saudis, the US risks being part of the past and not the future of Saudi Arabia.
• Hiam Nawas is an Arab-American expat working in Saudi Arabia.