This month marked 5 years since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi as he visited the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. His assassins dismembered him before escaping on two private jets that belonged to a company that had previously been seized by the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Khashoggi’s crime against the regime? Criticising the domestic and foreign policy of Prince Mohammed. The Crown Prince was so enraged that he personally approved the operation due to his “absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organisations,” US sources have since stated.
For a while, it appeared that the repercussions for Saudi Arabia would be severe. Whilst President Trump appeared lukewarm on punishing bin Salman, and would later boast about how he protected the Crown Prince, the tone from the Democratic party was initially different. At a November 2019 debate, when quizzed on the murder of Khashoggi, then-presidential candidate Biden vowed to not “sell more weapons to them…and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” Upon becoming President, Biden issued a statement that his foreign policy would be centred on the protection of human rights. It appeared that times were set to change.
But far from making Saudi a pariah state, Biden has cosied up to bin Salman, despite the execution of 81 men in one day in March 2022, and the approximately 130 executions occurring annually in Saudi Arabia since bin Salman came to power in 2015. In June 2022, President Biden visited Saudi Arabia and even shared a fist bump with the Crown Prince. He reneged on his earlier promise by approving a multibillion dollar arms sale to the Saudis a few months later. To Biden, these moves were necessary, as “a more secure and integrated Middle East benefits Americans in many ways.” The State Department towed the same line, stating that Saudi Arabia is “a force for political stability and economic progress in the Gulf region. Gone are the ideological commitments to human rights and freedom of expression, and in their place stands cold, hard, realpolitik, especially as the US continues its “pivot to Asia.”
However, it may be the case that the Saudis are playing the US at their own game of realpolitik as they are acutely aware of America’s desperate need for allies in the region. Saudi Arabia was therefore able to strike a Chinese brokered deal with Iran, shielding it from western escalation with the Iran-China-Russia axis. The deal brings the Saudis closer to two of the four countries identified by Americans as the greatest enemies of the US. Saudi Arabia also continually leverages its economic influence over the US with impunity. Despite pleas by Biden to avoid a cut in oil production in 2022, the Saudis cut production by 2 million barrels a day in an attempt to drive up prices. Biden promised “consequences” for the Saudis, yet when they repeated the trick in April 2023, the President tepidly tried to claim that the impact would not be too severe. The basis of the US-Saudi relationship appears simple; the US will forgo critiquing the regime and will offer American security in return for a reliable oil supply. The Saudis are in flagrant violation of their end of the deal, yet the Biden administration seem unwilling to change their policy.
If the Biden administration’s perception of “consequences” is allowing Saudi Arabia to increase its power in the Middle East, then maybe a change in policy is needed. Undeterred in their courting of Saudi power, the US are considering offering a mutual defence treaty that would guarantee US support should Saudi Arabia be attacked. The Biden administration also appeared ready to bring Saudi Arabia to the precipice of normalisation with Israel, only improving the former’s international prestige. Amidst the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, it was decision making in Riyadh that stalled progress. Nevertheless, bin Salman recently indicated that normalisation talks would soon resume, only reinforcing the view that he is the one dictating the terms. The White House is even flirting with the idea of allowing the Saudi’s to develop their own uranium enrichment programme in return for peace with Israel. Make no mistake; it is not an inability for the US to deal harshly with the Saudis, but rather a conscious foreign policy strategy, spearheaded by the Biden administration, of better the devil you know.
Saudi Arabia’s pervasive influence is not only felt in the fields of economics and politics, but it also permeates via soft power. The Saudi Arabian Private Investment Fund (PIF) is estimated to now control assets worth $700 billion. The PIF have given particular attention to improving the reputation of Saudi Arabia via investment in sport, in a move that has been labelled by critics as “sportwashing.” Bin Salman recently stated that the claim did not bother him and was a worthwhile sacrifice if it increased Saudi GDP by 1%. The PIF has already completed a takeover of Premier League football club, Newcastle United. The fund subsequently acquired four clubs in the Saudi Pro League, before spending nearly $1 billion on transfers to attract players. Football is not alone in having its image tainted by Saudi influence; in 2022, golf was divided when the PIF launched LIV Golf, before agreeing a proposed merger with the PGA Tour a year later. Sir Lewis Hamilton has already been critical of Formula 1’s decision to race in Saudi Arabia, and the PIF is reported to be considering purchasing the sport for $20 billion. The crowning achievement for Saudi soft power may be recent reports that the country looks set to host the 2034 World Cup, despite a promise by FIFA that a country could only host the tournament if they were committed to ‘respecting international human rights.’
What emerges is that a regime renowned for disregarding human rights and western interests is being given a platform to succeed by those very western countries. Through wielding a combination of political, economic, and cultural power, Saudi Arabia is rehabilitating its image on the global stage. It is already popular in the Muslim world, and seems set to continue taking advantage of American weakness. There is an obligation to hold Saudi Arabia to account for their actions and treat them like the pariah they were once labelled to be. There existed an argument for normalisation with Saudi Arabia whilst oil prices remained steady and treaties were not entered into with enemies of the West, but that is no longer the case. No longer can we ignore Saudi violations of human rights, and it is incumbent on our leaders to end visits to the desert kingdom, prevent investment in sports and end defence cooperation. Only then can we hope to see a change in Saudi policy.