The US House of representatives voted 350-71 to pass a measure that would restrict US arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act of 2021 was reintroduced by Rep. Gerry Conolly in February, after President Joe Biden promised a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia than his predecessor, as well as a “recalibration” of the bilateral relationship.
The bill would hold the White House accountable for providing reports to Congress about the repression of dissidents and journalists in Saudi Arabia. The bill would also include a 120 day halt of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, with the potential for that ban to be extended for three years.
The bill allows for the White House to circumvent the arms sale ban if it confirms to Congress that Saudi Arabia is “not violating the human rights of dissidents or detainees.”
President Joe Biden promised that his foreign policy would mark a major departure from former President Donald Trump, pledging to put human rights and democracy at the center of his approach to global affairs. But on issues ranging from US relations with Gulf states to refugees, Biden is continuing many of Trump’s most divisive and controversial policies and practices – and both progressives in Congress and advocacy groups are not happy.
Trump repeatedly demonized refugees, painting them as a threat to the US, and his administration set the lowest ever cap on refugee admissions for the 2021 fiscal year. On the campaign trail and in the early weeks of his presidency, Biden vowed to reverse that trend and lambasted Trump over his xenophobic refugee policy.
“We used to allow refugees – 125,000 refugees in the United States in a yearly basis,” Biden said during a CNN town hall in February. “It was as high as 250,000. Trump cut it to 5,000. Come with me into Sierra Leone. Come with me into parts of Lebanon. Come with me around the world and see people piled up in camps, kids dying, no way out, refugees fleeing from persecution. We, the United States, used to do our part. We were part of that. We were – and, you know, that’s – you know, ‘send me your huddled masses.’ Come on.”
But the president is now walking back on a promise to open America’s doors to 62,500 refugees this fiscal year, and is keeping Trump’s historically low cap of 15,000 in place, per a directive the president issued on Friday.
Biden is also moving to speed up admissions and change the regional allocation of refugees, ending a Trump policy that effectively disqualified most refugees from African and Muslim-majority countries.
The president’s decision-making on this has seemingly been influenced by Republican criticism over his administration’s handling of a historic number of migrant arrivals at the US-Mexico border in recent months. GOP leaders have referred to the surge as a “crisis,” blaming it on by Biden’s more welcoming immigration messaging.
Human rights groups, refugee advocates, and some congressional Democrats ripped into Biden’s decision to retain Trump’s refugee cap.
“Completely and utterly unacceptable,” said Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise. Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, [including] the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong. Keep your promise.”
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state said Biden has “broken his promise to restore our humanity.”
“This is incredibly disappointing. The U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world and we can’t do better?” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, tweeted on Friday.
Joanne Lin, the National Director of Advocacy and Government Relations at Amnesty International, in a statement said Biden is “turning his back on tens of thousands of refugees around the world who have been approved to come to the United States.”
“Biden had the opportunity to fulfill his campaign pledge and to deliver on his promises to protect the rights of and well-being of refugees, to place human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy, and to restore U.S. global leadership. He squandered that opportunity today,” Lin added.
Less than 100 days into his presidency, Biden has already reversed or moved to roll-back many of Trump’s biggest foreign policy changes. But as evidenced by the decision on refugees, Biden is not pulling a complete 180 when it comes to international relations – and he’s facing growing accusations of talking big on human rights without fully backing it up.
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But Biden did not sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over Khashoggi’s killing, even after the release of a declassified intelligence report directly implicating the Saudi leader in the brutal murder.
“It is extremely problematic, in my view, if not dangerous, to acknowledge someone’s culpability and then to tell that someone, ‘But we won’t do anything, please proceed as if have we have said nothing’,” Agnes Callamard, the new chief of Amnesty International who spearheaded a UN inquiry into Khashoggi’s killing, said of Biden.
In February, Biden announced he’s moving to end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Critics say this arms deal doesn’t exactly jive with that move and Biden’s broader promise to prioritize human rights.
Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that Biden’s advancement of Trump’s arm deal with the UAE means his administration “has backed out of its pledge” on Yemen and warned the US now risks complicity in future human rights violations.
“Trying to understand how a massive arms sale to a repressive authoritarian government that bankrolled regional anti-democratic counterrevolutions, backs a Libyan warlord, and helped rubble Yemen (a partial list) strengthens a rules-based international order,” Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, said in a tweet.
Duss has praised Biden on other foreign policy moves, such as the president’s decision to tap Antony Blinken as Secretary of State. But his criticism of Biden on the UAE sale is emblematic of evolving discontentment among progressives and human rights groups when it comes to the president’s foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday sentenced an aid worker to 20 years in prison for running a Twitter account that he used to mock Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known also as MBS – and his government.
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 37, was seized by Saudi secret police in March 2018 at the offices of the Saudi Red Crescent, an aid agency where he worked in Riyadh. He was sentenced by a specialist Saudi terror court but the specific charges remain undisclosed.
He also faces a 20-year travel ban after imprisonment.
His sister, Areej al-Sadhan, a US citizen who works in the Bay Area tech industry, told Insider that her brother’s sentencing is a clear sign that MBS is testing President Joe Biden’s promise to bring the Saudi leadership to heel over human-rights abuses.
But Areej al-Sadhan told Insider her brother’s sentence shows Saudi Arabia has no intention of letting the US dictate its internal affairs.
“Clearly the Saudis are testing President Biden’s commitment to the human rights first approach in Saudi Arabia,” she said.
“It just shows that the Saudi government are not serious about improving human rights at all.”
Insider contacted the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, and the Saudi Center for International Communication for comment.
Areej al-Sadhan went on to call on Biden and his administration to act.
“I ask President Biden to look at this seriously. We seriously need his help with human-rights activists, and to stand up for human rights as he promised. Just dismissing those abuses will lead to more abuses,” she told Insider.
The Biden administration in February released a US intelligence report that said that MBS approved the hit on Khashoggi, but did not include the crown prince on a list of 76 Saudi officials sanctioned over the murder.
“Without consequences to Khashoggi’s murder, they are feeling emboldened to commit more human-rights abuses,” she said.
“As we have said to Saudi officials at all levels, freedom of expression should never be a punishable offense,” spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also released a statement slamming the kingdom’s treatment of al-Sadhan, saying: “The brutal sentencing of humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, which follows his years-long disappearance and imprisonment without trial, is a grave and appalling injustice.”
“Riyadh needs to know that the world is watching its disturbing actions and that we will hold it accountable,” she added.
How al-Sadhan got caught
The exposure of al-Sadhan’s Twitter account is thought to be linked to a 2016 Twitter hack conducted by two Saudi spies employed by Twitter in San Francisco.
The hack saw Saudi authorities unmask scores of accounts that had been critical of the crown prince and Saudi state.
One dissident who had his account hacked, the Gulf analyst Ali al-Ahmed, previously told Insider the breach led to several of his contacts in Saudi Arabia being disappeared. He is suing Twitter for damages.
Areej al-Sadhan told Insider that her brother’s Twitter account was accessed by Saudi authorities, but that it’s unclear whether it was a result of the hack of al-Ahmed’s Twitter account.
Since taking office in January, the Biden administration has made a concerted effort to pressure Saudi Arabia into reigning in its human-rights abuses, and the move has come alongside some advancements.
In February, the US ended support for the Saudi-led Yemen war and Blinken called on his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, to remedy the kingdom’s poor human-rights record. The White House also made a petty dig at MBS, announcing that Biden’s counterpart in the kingdom was King Salman rather than the crown prince.
In February, Bader al-Ibrahim, a Saudi scientist, and Salah al-Haidar, the son of the detained women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, were also released. They were detained in April 2019 and charged with crimes relating to terror offenses.
They all remain under travel bans.
Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan was educated in the US, graduating from Notre Dame de Namur University in California in 2013.
Beating back doubts over funding and feasibility, work is moving ahead, as it is at several of the crown prince’s other pet projects.
Last month James Bradley, Neom’s head of technology, told ZDNet he wanted to collect 90% of available data from residents and smart infrastructure. Existing smart cities use about 1% of such data, Bradley added, without providing specifics.
Bradley’s interview is the first insight into how Neom will run. The Neom press office declined to comment for this story.
Current smart cities like Songdo, South Korea, use data from internet of things sensors to perform actions like alert people when their bus is approaching or prevent water waste – but nothing in existence comes close to Neom’s plan.
How ‘Neos’ works
Coordinating Neom’s data-collection effort will be an operating system called Neos, Bradley said.
Each resident would have a unique ID number, and Neos would process data from heart-rate monitors, phones, facial-recognition cameras, bank details, and thousands of internet of things devices around the city, per the plans reported by ZDNet.
For example, Neos would know if you had fallen over, and if you stayed down too long, it would deploy drones to your location and alert emergency services, ZDNet reported. You wouldn’t need to check into your hotel room online or at a desk, as a door-handle fingerprint scanner will suffice, ZDNet reported.
“Neom will be proactive,” Bradley told the outlet. “It can take action. And ultimately, it is personalized.”
For some, such extreme digital intrusion is an ominous prospect, but Neom is interested in attracting those who embrace the future.
Residents will have the option of choosing how much personal data they submit to Neos, Bradley told ZDNet, adding: “An individual’s right to privacy is theirs, but the ability to use that information is directly correlated to the value they receive.”
It is not clear whether Neom would require residents to pass over a minimum amount of data for basic functionalities.
Convenience utopia or surveillance nightmare?
Experts described Neos as an extraordinary proposition, but noted that the deep level of technological integration could deter many from moving there – and leave the door open to a nefarious exploitation of personal data.
“Neom says you can opt in and opt out, but people will be skeptical of the truth of that,” Jonathan Richenthal, the author of “Smart Cities for Dummies,” told Insider.
“We hear too many stories where we thought there was a sensor on a traffic light that was used to count traffic but also had a camera in it that they didn’t switch off.”
Vincent Mosco, the author of “The Smart City in a Digital World,” added that Neom would have to show total transparency over the data gathered.
“We have no clear sense of what will be done with it,” he told Insider. “From what we know about Saudi Arabia, you know it’s unlikely to be used for good.”
Mosco and Richenthal both cited the case of a smart-city district proposed for Toronto in 2017 by Google’s SideWalk Labs that was scrapped in 2020 over surveillance concerns.
“No one trusted Google to manage data well or not pry on every activity you’re doing,” Richenthal said.
“You transfer that to a region of the world that inherently has transparency challenges already, and it gets more complicated.”
‘People will value the convenience’
Other experts noted that for technophiles and those greedy for convenience, utilizing their personal data is not an issue.
“We like rewards,” Professor Andrew Hudson-Smith, a professor of Digital Urban Systems at University College London, told Insider.
“People will buy into this as long as they’re given an incentive for it. That may be better healthcare, which is what Neom has said.”
Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst and member of Neom’s advisory board, suggested that much of the data Neom plans to harness is likely already being taken by tech companies today.
“People will value the convenience and the associated elimination of bureaucracy … over sharing their digital data that many assume is already in the public domain given the technology that they use,” he told Insider in an email, citing the use of smartphones and smartwatches.
For many, surrendering personal data isn’t an issue, added Professor Jiska Englebert, a communications and smart-city expert at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication in Rotterdam.
Neom’s residents are likely to be “the kind of people who say, ‘I don’t care, it will be quite impersonal, and if is is personal it will give me all kinds of benefits,'” she told Insider.
For other experts, the main barrier Neom faces is not a concern over surveillance.
“The main challenge is to create a society in the middle of nowhere, rather than to make people comfortable with the idea of sharing personal data and being surrounded by drones, robots, and AI,” Federico Cugurullo, an assistant professor at Trinity College, Dublin, who studies smart-city ecosystems, told Insider.
By and large, experts are excited about Neom, though they caveat that smart cities rarely resemble their original blueprints.
Richenthal said he was especially optimistic about Neom’s health-focused ethos, given that current cities place huge stress on their residents’ daily lives. For example, Neom plans to be car-free, reducing air and noise pollution, and have abundant green space.
“Every city eventually needs to upgrade and we are desperately looking for good ideas,” he said.
“This could create a bar for cities to learn what’s possible, what works.”
You may have noticed: The Blob is back. Beneath a veneer of gender and racial diversity, the Biden national security team consists of seasoned operatives who earned their spurs in Washington long before Donald Trump showed up to spoil the party.
So if you’re looking for fresh faces at the departments of state or defense, the National Security Council or the various intelligence agencies, you’ll have to search pretty hard. Ditto, if you’re looking for fresh insights. In Washington, members of the foreign policy establishment recite stale bromides, even as they divert attention from a dead past to which they remain devoted.
The boss shows them how it’s done.
Just two weeks into his presidency, Joe Biden visited the State Department to give American diplomats their marching orders. In his formal remarks, the president committed his administration to “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”
His language allowed no room for quibbles or exemptions. In our world, some things can be waived – SAT scores for blue-chip athletes being recruited to play big-time college ball, for example. Yet cherished values presumably qualify as sacrosanct. To take Biden at his word, his administration will honor this commitment not some of the time, but consistently; not just when it’s convenient to do so, but without exception.
Less than a month later, the president received a ready-made opportunity to demonstrate his fealty to those very values.
The matter at hand concerned Saudi Arabia, more specifically the release of an intelligence report fingering Mohammad bin Salman, aka MBS, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler of that country, for ordering the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist employed by The Washington Post. The contents of the report surprised no one. The interesting question was how the new president would respond.
Months earlier, during the election campaign, Biden had described Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally, as a “pariah state” that possessed “no redeeming value.”
Previously, Donald Trump had cozied up to the Saudi royals – they were his kind of people. As far as candidate Biden was concerned, the time for romancing Riyadh had ended. Never again, he vowed, would Washington “check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.”
Let it be said that a preference for lucre rather than principles succinctly describes traditional US-Saudi relations going back several decades. While President Trump treated the “friendship” between the two countries as cause for celebration, other American leaders gingerly tip-toed around the role allotted to arms and oil.
In diplomacy, some things were better left unsaid. So, to hear candidate Biden publicly acknowledge the relationship’s tawdry essence was little short of astonishing.
While a member of the Senate and during his eight years as vice president, he had hardly gone out of his way to pick fights with the Kingdom. Were Biden to replace Trump, however, things were going to change. Big time.
Threading the needle
As it turned out, not so much. Once inaugurated, Biden found ample reason for checking American principles at the door. Shelving further references to Saudi Arabia as a pariah, he tweaked Washington’s relationship with the Kingdom, while preserving its essence.
The term chosen to describe the process is recalibrate. In practical terms, recalibration means that the US government is sanctioning a few dozen Saudi functionaries for their involvement in the Khashoggi assassination, while giving Mohammad Bin Salman himself a pass.
MBS’s sanctioned henchmen would do well to cancel any planned flights into New York’s JFK airport or Washington’s Dulles, where the FBI will undoubtedly be waiting to take them into custody. That said, unless they fall out of favor with the crown prince himself, the assassins will literally get away with murder.
Recalibration also means that the United States is “pausing” – not terminating – further arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The purpose of the pause, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has explained, is “to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy.”
Translation? Don’t expect much to happen.
Inside the Beltway, lobbyists for US arms merchants are undoubtedly touching base with members of Congress whose constituencies benefit from exporting weapons to that very country. Said lobbyists need not burn the midnight oil, however. Mr. Khashoggi’s demise has complicated but will not derail the US-Saudi relationship. Given time, some version of the status quo will be restored.
Just one more example of American hypocrisy? Within the Blob, a different view pertains. Consider the perspective of former senior official and longtime Middle Eastern hand Dennis Ross. “This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests,” Mr. Ross told The New York Times.
Biden, he added approvingly, is now “trying to thread the needle.” Mustering the wisdom acquired from decades of service deep inside the Blob, Ross pointed out that “there isn’t an issue in the Middle East where we don’t need them to play a role – on Iran, on competing with the Chinese.”
Ultimately, it’s that simple: The United States needs Saudi Arabia.
As a respected member of the foreign policy establishment, Ross speaks with the authority that gets you quoted in the Times. Informing his perspective is a certain iron logic, time-tested and seemingly endorsed by history itself. Take that logic at face value and Washington needs Saudi Arabia because it needs to police the Persian Gulf and its environs, as required by the decades-old, never-to-be-questioned Carter Doctrine.
The United States needs Saudi Arabia because the Kingdom already plays a not-inconsequential role in the drama accompanying energy-hungry China’s emergence as a great power. And let’s face it: The United States also needs Saudi Arabia because of all that oil (even though this country no longer actually uses that oil itself) and because MBS’s insatiable appetite for arms helps to sustain the military-industrial complex.
So the pieces all fit into a coherent whole, thereby validating a particular conception of history itself. The United States needs Saudi Arabia for the same reason that it needs to remain part of NATO, needs to defend various other allies, needs to maintain a sprawling worldwide constellation of bases, needs to annually export billions of dollars worth of weaponry, needs to engage in endless wars, and needs to spend a trillion-plus dollars annually pursuant to what is usually described as “national security.”
More broadly, the United States needs to do all these things because it needs to lead a world that cannot do without its leadership. The trajectory of events going back more than a century now, encompassing two world wars, the Cold War, and the forever wars of the post-Cold War era, proves as much. End of discussion.
Not all historians bow to the iron logic to which the Blob subscribes, however. Recent events are prompting a few dissenters to entertain second thoughts. Among them is Professor Martin Conway of Oxford University. Now, Professor Conway is anything but a household name. When it comes to name recognition, he doesn’t hold a candle to Dennis Ross, nor is he someone The New York Times consults on issues of the day.
So should we attend to Professor Conway’s contrarian perspective? Very much so and here’s why: Compared to Ross or the sundry Blobbers now in Joe Biden’s employ, Conway is not a prisoner of a curated past. He’s open to the possibility that the sell-by date attached to that taken-for-granted past may well have expired.
Consider his provocative essay “Making Trump History,” recently published online in H-Diplo. (A more accurate title would have been “History as Illuminated by Trump.”)
By and large, Conway writes, scholars deem Trump to have been “an insult to the historical narrative,” a living, breathing “refutation of deeply held assumptions among historians about how the democratic politics of the US are supposed to work.”
Their reflexive response is to classify Trump as an outlier, a one-off intruder, a conviction seemingly affirmed by his failure to win a second term. With his departure from the White House, the resumption of normalcy (or at least what passed for the same in Washington) has theoretically become possible. Biden’s job is to hasten its return.
Conway entertains another view. He speculates that normalcy may, in fact, be gone for good. And the sooner the rest of us grasp that, he believes, the better.
Conway boldly rejects the media’s preferred Manichean account of the so-called Age of Trump. Rather than insulting the traditional Washington narrative, he suggests, Trump simply supplanted it. Wittingly or not, the new president acted in concert with political opportunists in Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere who, in advancing their own ambitions, trampled all over the familiar storyline devised and refined to make sense of our age.
As a first step toward grasping what’s now underway, Conway urges his fellow historians to “bury their narratives of the twentieth century” – on a par with asking Ohio State or the University of Alabama to give up football. Conway then suggests that a new past he calls a “history of the present” is emerging. And he identifies “three trig points” to begin mapping the “uncharted landscape” that lies ahead.
The first relates to the collapse of barriers that had long confined politics to familiar channels. Today, democratic politics has “burst its banks,” Conway writes. The people once assumed to be in charge no longer really are.
Presidents, prime ministers, and parliamentarians compete with (and frequently court) “footballers, TV celebrities, and rap artists” who “communicate more directly and effectively with the public.” Who do you trust? Mitch McConnell or George Clooney? Who has your ear? Nancy Pelosi or Oprah Winfrey?
Conway’s second trig point references the bond between citizens and the state. The old contract – individual duties performed in exchange for collective benefits – no longer applies. Instead, the “new politics of the bazaar” shortchange the many while benefiting the few (like the mega-wealthy Americans who, during the coronavirus pandemic, have so far raked in an estimated extra $1.3 trillion).
Egged on by politicians like Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the less privileged have figured this out. Biden’s efforts to pass yet another Covid-19-related relief bill responded to but could not conceal the real story: the emergence of an anti-establishment populism.
His final trig point wipes out the old-fashioned “political frontiers of the left and right.” In the History of the Present, politics emphasize “identity and grievance.” Citizens lend their support to causes centered on “emotions, group identity, or aspirations,” while rendering once-accepted notions of class and party all but irrelevant. “Institutional structures, ideological traditions, and indeed democratic norms” are being “replaced by a less disciplined and more open politics.” Passions govern, imparting to the History of the Present unprecedented levels of volatility.
Conway doesn’t pretend to know where all this will lead, other than suggesting that the implications are likely to be striking and persistent. But let me suggest the following: For all their rote references to new challenges in a new era, President Biden and the members of his crew are clueless as to what the onset of Conway’s History of the Present portends.
Throughout the ranks of the establishment, the reassuringly familiar narratives of the 20th century retain their allure. Among other things, they obviate the need to think.
Wrong thread, wrong needle
Nowhere is this more emphatically the case than in quarters where members of the Blob congregate and where the implications of Conway’s analysis may well have the most profound impact. Conway’s primary concern is with developments within what used to be called the West.
That said, the History of the Present will profoundly impact relations between the West (which, these days, really means the United States) and the rest of the world. And that brings us right back to President Biden’s awkward effort to “thread the needle” regarding Saudi Arabia.
Someday, when a successor to Buzzfeed posts an official ranking of 21st-century crimes, the vicious murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul won’t even make it anywhere near the first tier.
His assassination will, for instance, certainly trail well behind the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, not to speak of various other US military actions from Afghanistan to Somalia undertaken as part of the so-called Global War on Terror.
Whether explicitly or implicitly, President Bush and his successors cited those very “narratives of the twentieth century” to which Professor Conway refers to justify their interventions across the Greater Middle East. The most important – indeed beloved – narrative celebrates the US role in ensuring freedom’s triumph over evil in the form of various totalitarian ideologies.
Attach all the caveats and exceptions you want: Hiroshima, Vietnam, CIA-engineered coups, the Bay of Pigs, the Iran-Contra scandal, and so on and so forth. Yet even today, most Americans believe and virtually anyone responsible for formulating and implementing basic US global policy affirms that the United States is a force for good in the world.
As such, America is irreplaceable, indispensable, and essential. Hence, the unique prerogatives that it confers on itself are justified. Such thinking, of course, sustains the conviction that, even today, alone among nations, the United States is able to keep its interests and “its most cherished democratic values” in neat alignment.
By discarding the narratives of the 20th century, Conway’s History of the Present invites us to see this claim for what it is – a falsehood of Trumpian dimensions, one that, in recent decades, has wreaked untold havoc while distracting policymakers from concerns far more urgent than engaging in damage control on behalf of Mohammad Bin Salman.
A proper appreciation of the History of the Present will only begin with the realization that the United States needs neither MBS, nor Saudi Arabia, nor for that matter a sprawling and expensive national security apparatus to police the Persian Gulf.
What this country does need is to recognize that the 20th century is gone for good. Developments ranging from the worsening threat posed by climate change to the shifting power balance in East Asia, not to mention the transformation of American politics ushered in by Donald Trump, should have made this patently obvious.
If Professor Conway is right – and I’m convinced that he is – then it’s past time to give the narratives of the 20th century a decent burial. Doing so may be a precondition for our very survival.
Sadly, Joe Biden and his associates appear demonstrably incapable of exchanging the history that they know for a history on which our future may well depend. As a result, they will cling to an increasingly irrelevant past. Under the guise of correcting Trump’s failures, they will perpetuate their own.
The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is in a state of turbulence.
Persistent drone and missile attacks by the Houthis, including a March 7 strike on a major Saudi oil export facility at Ras Tanura, has led Washington to reiterate its “unwavering” commitment to the defense.
Yet at the same time, the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi underscores just how urgent a recalibration of US-Saudi relations really is.
The Biden administration has taken pains to thread the needle between accountability for the killing of a journalist and permanent US resident and the need to maintain a constructive relationship with the kingdom. In general, this is the correct approach. As despicable as bin Salman’s behavior has been since he rose from obscure prince to day-to-day ruler, the US blowing up the entire relationship would not be wise.
This, however, doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t in need of serious work. The US has too often based its engagement with Saudi Arabia as if the world was still in the 20th century.
President Joe Biden needs to reset the terms at an institutional level, getting away from an oil-for-security paradigm no longer as durable today as it was 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. Instituting a travel ban on problematic Saudis, slapping financial sanctions on certain Saudi entities and cutting Prince Mohammed off from Biden are surface-level gestures. What Washington needs is real reform.
Washington and Riyadh established their strategic relationship at the tail end of World War II, when US President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud struck a transactional arrangement that would come to be known colloquially as the oil-for-security scheme.
In return for the Saudis opening their taps and providing a reliable supply of crude oil into the market, the US would grant the kingdom the defense articles and military training needed to protect itself from external threats. The understanding proved to be a pragmatic and largely effective one for both countries, both of which were wary of the Soviet Union and concerned about what Soviet expansionism in the Middle East would mean for the world’s most valuable energy source.
For US officials at the time, having one of the world’s biggest oil producers in Washington’s corner was simply common-sense.
Times, however, have changed. The Soviet Union, America’s adversary for over 45 years, has been in the history books for nearly three decades. While fossil fuels remain vital for the global economy, the tremendous progress being made in green energy is giving the world, including the United States, an opportunity to diversify its energy sources and thereby lessen its dependence on crude oil.
As a consequence, Riyadh has lost some of its influence over geopolitics. In 1991, the US imported 1.8 million barrels of Saudi oil per day. According to the Energy Information Agency’s own data, that figure has gone down to 530,000 barrels per day – the lowest since 1985.
Just because the US is importing less Saudi oil, of course, doesn’t mean the kingdom’s oil reserves are not important. But what it does mean is that the old oil-for-security model that has dominated bilateral relations for so long is less relevant in 2021 than it was during the Cold War.
Back then, a rival superpower dictating Persian Gulf oil prices was at least a plausible scenario for US policymakers and defense planners. Nobody can seriously make the same argument today – Iran and Russia are far too weak militarily and economically to reach hegemonic status, and China doesn’t seem particularly interested in bogging itself down in the Middle East.
The Biden administration’s recalibration of US-Saudi relations is long-overdue.
The president’s decision last month to end offensive US military support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen was a big step in the right direction, distancing Washington from Riyadh’s reckless air campaign and sending King Salman and his favorite son a message that the US won’t automatically be at the beck and call of the kingdom – especially when the kingdom’s own actions are a big part of the problem.
But a recalibration will stall if the Biden administration thinks all it needs to do is reprimand Crown Prince Mohammed and put the brash heir in his place. And it won’t succeed at all if Washington neglects three critical points: 1) Saudi Arabia is not a formal US treaty ally, 2) US and Saudi interests are more likely to diverge than coalesce, and 3) What is good for the kingdom in the Middle East does necessarily correlate with what is good for the US.
Biden has a golden opportunity to rewrite the old, 75-year-old contract governing the US-Saudi relationship, one where the US approaches the kingdom like any authoritarian state with a terrible human rights record: skeptical and at arms-length, but ready to do business when US national security interests demand it.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.
Oil prices shot up past $70 for the first time in more than a year after key facilities in Saudi Arabia came under a missile and drone attack Sunday.
Saudi Arabia said the attacks were intercepted, with an attempted drone strike aimed at one of the petroleum tank farms in the Ras Tanura port while a ballistic missile targeted Saudi Aramco facilities in Dharan, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
Brent oil, oil’s international benchmark, climbed to an intraday high of $71.38 per barrel as it packed on more than 2% from Friday’s settlement. Brent oil hadn’t traded above $70 since January 2020. The price on Monday eventually turned lower, losing 0.2% at $69.24.
The West Texas Intermediate continuous oil contract reached as high as $67.26 before pulling back. It was off $0.02 at $65.43.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Sunday claimed they hit facilities in Ras Tanura, according to the Washington Post. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been fighting against the rebels backed by Iran since 2015.
“The Ministry of Defense will undertake all necessary, deterrent measures to safeguard its national assets in a manner that preserves the security of global energy,” said Brigadier General Turki Al-Malki of Saudi Arabia’s defense ministry in a statement.
Oil prices climbed last week after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies agreed to keep production cuts intact through April, a decision made as a recovery in the market is still taking shape while the COVID-19 pandemic persists.
Oil prices soared Thursday in the wake of reports that major oil producers have agreed to keep their supply cuts intact through next month.
OPEC and its allies had been discussing whether or not to restore as much as 1.5 million barrels a day of oil production. The group ultimately decided that it will leave output at current levels, according to a Bloomberg report.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, committed to extend its voluntary cut of 1 million barrels of oil per day. The oil market officials meet via video-conference. The discussion took place at a time when recovery in the oil market is still taking hold after a plunge in demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prices for Brent crude, the international benchmark, jumped as much as 5.3% to an intraday high of $67.47, with the gain later trimmed to 4.7%.
The decision by OPEC+ was “incredibly bullish,” and Saudi Arabia’s decision “was shocking as it leaves them vulnerable to losing market share next month when the oil market is in deficit by a couple million barrels,” said Edward Moya, senior market analyst at Oanda, in a note.
West Texas Intermediate oil futures also popped up as much as 5.3% to an intraday high of $64.51. The continuous contract was later up by 4.6%.
In spring 2018, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Wall Street, and major universities rolled out a red carpet for nearly three weeks to welcome Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the United States.
During his trip, MBS met with Oprah Winfrey, Rupert Murdoch, Sergey Brin, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates, among many others. The New York Times described the US tour as “seeking to change the perception of Saudi Arabia from an opaque and conservative kingdom, where mosques promote extremist ideology and women are relegated to second-class status, to a modernist desert oasis.”
But while MBS was the face of that effort, an enormous sovereign wealth fund – the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, or PIF – with about $400 billion in assets and expected to grow to $2 trillion, was the real draw for many of the tech, finance, and entertainment elites seeking photos and meetings with the 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne.
Six months later, two planes owned by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund flew a team of assassins from Riyadh to Istanbul, where they murdered Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate. The planes then flew the kill team back to Saudi Arabia.
At least one of those planes was operating inside the US as recently as October.
The role of PIF assets in the murder was made public in court documents filed in Canada as part of an embezzlement lawsuit brought by a number of Saudi-state owned companies against Saad Aljabri, a former top Saudi Intelligence official, who is currently in exile and previously claimed in a lawsuit filed in DC District Court that MBS attempted to send a kill team to murder him shortly after Khashoggi’s assassination.
Canadian court filings, first reported by CNN and later acquired and reviewed by Responsible Statecraft and Insider, reveal that Sky Prime Aviation was transferred to PIF on December 22, 2017. Two Gulfstream jets owned by Sky Prime Aviation shuttled Khashoggi’s assassins in and out of Istanbul less than one year after the transfer of Sky Prime Aviation to PIF.
“TOP SECRET NOT FOR CIRCULATION AND VERY URGENT” reads the top of the document that detailed the transfer of a group of companies, including Sky Prime Aviation, to the PIF.
The document directs:
“According to the instruction of His Highness the Crown Prince, Chairman of the Supreme Committee for Public Corruption Cases, to transfer the ownership of all companies referred to in my aforementioned letter to the ownership of the Public Investment Fund, immediately approve the completion of the necessary procedures for this.”
“Given the central role of the crown prince in terms of controlling Saudi Arabian assets and the government writ large, there needs to be an international independent investigation to identify what state assets were used in this gruesome murder,” said Kate Kizer, policy director for advocacy group Win Without War.
The release of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report last week, which concluded that MBS approved of the operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi, led to the implementation of Magnitsky Act sanctions against a former Saudi intelligence chief and members of the group who participated in the murder.
But ultimately the Biden administration chose not to sanction or otherwise penalize MBS directly, despite the ODNI’s assessment that he approved of the operation leading to Khashoggi’s death.
“It’s a violation of Biden’s campaign promise hold the murderers of Khashoggi accountable,” said Michael Eisner, general counsel for Democracy in the Arab World Now, a group founded by Khashoggi shortly before his murder.
“We now know who ordered the murder, and he will not face the same consequences as his foot soldiers,” said Eisner. “That goes against a basic principle of justice that the person who orders a murder should face no less a severe punishment than the foot soldiers who carried it out.”
The Magnitsky Act can have far-reaching implications.
The Treasury Department describes it as being implemented “in recognition that the prevalence of human rights abuse and corruption that have their source, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States, had reached such scope and gravity as to threaten the stability of international political and economic systems.”
“The United States seeks to impose tangible and significant consequences on those who commit serious human rights abuse or engage in corruption, as well as to protect the financial system of the United States from abuse by these same persons,” the Treasury says.
“The Biden administration should apply US Global Magnitsky Act sanctions and travel bans on senior executives at the PIF based on the use of PIF planes to move Jamal Khashoggi’s Saudi assassins between Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” said Sunjeev Bery, executive director of advocacy group Freedom Forward. “It’s ridiculous that on one hand the PIF is providing travel support for Khashoggi’s assassins while at the same time doing business deals with Uber and other companies in Silicon Valley.”
While the role of PIF assets wasn’t mentioned in the ODNI report or the sanctions announcement, MBS’s role as chairman of PIF and the use of PIF assets – the two Gulfstream jets – raises questions about the fund’s involvement in the assassination and the knowledge of other PIF executives about the operation to kidnap or kill Khashoggi.
PIF did not respond to a request for comment about the role its planes played in the murder and about what, if any, knowledge or involvement PIF had in approving or operating the flights to Istanbul.
PIF’s status as a heavily courted investor no doubt generates considerable incentives for authorities to keep discussion about the fund’s role in the killing as quiet as possible. Funds like PIF can purchase stock in any publicly traded company, and two weeks ago, PIF increased its investment in US stock to nearly $12.8 billion. The fund holds a $1.38 billion stake in Activision Blizzard, $3.7 billion in Uber, $1.06 billion in Electronic Arts, $923 million in Live Nation, and $1.1 billion in Carnival Cruise Lines.
Sky Prime Aviation, for its part, has taken measures to limit publicly accessible data about the ongoing flight activities of the airplanes used in the operation that killed Khashoggi. But, much like MBS and the PIF, their operations inside the US appear to continue without any meaningful limitations or consequences stemming from the killing.
RadarBox, a system that tracks flight data, shows one of the Gulfstream jets that was used to fly the kill team to Turkey in 2018 flying inside the US as recently as late last year. On October 13, the Gulfstream IV with tail number HZ-SK1 departed Boston and flew to Fort Lauderdale, arriving in the late afternoon. It was the same plane that ferried the second group of assassins from Riyadh to Istanbul.
The missile came after an Israeli ship in the Gulf of Oman suffered an explosion earlier this week, with Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz saying that his “initial assessment” was that Iran was responsible.