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It’s Time to Rethink the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

For Too Long, Washington Has Sacrificed Its Principles To Appease The Kingdom—and Gotten Almost Nothing In Return.

Turkish writer Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to a portrait of Khashoggi after unveiling it on the National Mall in Washington on Oct. 1, 2021, during a memorial ceremony marking the third anniversary of his assassination at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Four months ago, Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 81 men in a single day. A number of those executed were convicted of charges such as “disrupting the social fabric and national cohesion” and “participating in and inciting sit-ins and protests,” indicating crimes of political speech. The Saudi government didn’t release information on where or how the executions took place.

This kind of barbaric repression would seem like a major setback for a key U.S. ally. But the event barely registered in the United States. Riyadh has a well-known history of beheadings, and Washington’s foreign-policy establishment brushed off the latest executions as typical roguish Saudi behavior.

Over and over again, the Saudi government acts in ways that are directly contrary to U.S. security interests, and over and over again, the United States just looks the other way, even as U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to travel to the country this week as part of a Middle East tour.

The lack of any meaningful reaction to the executions is part of a disturbing pattern. For years, Saudi Arabia used U.S. weapons and military assistance to bomb civilians in Yemen, and nothing changed. In 2018, Riyadh killed and dismembered Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident, and nothing changed. Recently declassified intelligence revealed that, in 2000, a Saudi official hosted a house party on U.S. soil with two of the 9/11 hijackers before they carried out their terrorist attacks—and nothing changed. Sure, there have been modifications at the margins of the U.S.-Saudi relationship—to its credit, the Biden administration stopped providing Saudi Arabia with offensive weapons for the war in Yemen and imposed some sanctions on the country in response to Khashoggi’s killing—but the foundation of the alliance has not budged.

The foreign-policy consensus in Washington is that we should continue to ignore Saudi transgressions because of a presumed realpolitik—a strategic necessity to keep Saudi Arabia on our side. When the chips are down, the realists argue, we need Riyadh to pick us—and continue to supply oil at an affordable price for our economic well-being.

Well, since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the chips have been undoubtedly and firmly down. And not only has Saudi Arabia failed to deliver—for all intents and purposes, it has picked the other guys.

In the first 100 days of the war in Ukraine, Russia added nearly $100 billion to its war chest as energy prices skyrocketed and its oil exports sold at record highs. The United States and Europe, meanwhile, are struggling to both manage inflation and rising gas prices as well as fund Ukraine’s increasingly expensive and protracted war effort.

For these reasons, the United States has pleaded with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies such as the United Arab Emirates to pump enough additional oil to significantly lower global prices and reduce Russia’s revenue for its brutal campaign in Ukraine. The government in Riyadh has refused over and over. Instead, it has kept production below capacity and prices high.

And it’s not as if Riyadh is hard up for revenue. In the first quarter of 2022, Saudi Arabia reported a $15 billion government surplus and oil revenues 58 percent higher than during the same quarter last year. Its inaction is a deliberate strategic choice.

Speculation abounds that Biden’s long-awaited trip to Riyadh could finally convince Saudi Arabia to expand oil production. But why must it take an emergency visit from a U.S. president to get Saudi leaders to choose their ally? Hasn’t the whole point of our decision to look the other way—from the war crimes, the bone saws, and the beheadings—been to make sure that when the United States needed Saudi Arabia, it would be there for us?

I do not argue that the United States should abandon its relationship with the kingdom. There will be moments where our interests intersect, and true realpolitik would allow us to join hands at those discrete junctions. For instance, the growing détente between Saudi Arabia and Israel is good for the United States, and we should work with Riyadh to advance this relationship. And while I argue against the United States unconditionally taking the side of the Gulf states in the regional battle with Iran, we clearly have mutual interests in pushing back against Iran’s support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But the time has come for a comprehensive reform of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration has made it clear that the president’s trip is about more than oil. Biden is expected to raise concerns about human rights in the country; food security; Iran’s nuclear program and growing regional influence; Syria’s civil war; normalization efforts between Israel and the Arab world; and political gridlock in Iraq, Libya, and Lebanon. That’s a good thing. But make no mistake: Saudi Arabia will—and has already begun to—tout Biden’s visit as a testament to its global legitimacy and a boost for its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

If this trip is going to be worth it, the United States needs Saudi Arabia to make real commitments to improve its human rights record, provide justice for political dissenters and their families, and end the war in Yemen.

For example, Riyadh should release the more than 100 Saudis in prison for activism, criticizing the government, impugning Islam, or “offensive” internet postings. The kingdom’s pattern of extraterritorial harassment of dissenters abroad needs to end. And while the truce in Yemen is an important step, Saudi Arabia needs to contribute humanitarian aid and do the diplomatic legwork to finally bring an end to the suffering. Biden should make clear that without real commitments on these key issues, the United States’ willingness to continue as Saudi Arabia’s security partner is at risk. Because if nothing changes, we will continue to bear a significant moral and strategic cost for our close alliance with the kingdom while getting too little in return.

The establishment will argue that if the United States were to recalibrate its relationship with Riyadh, Saudi Arabia might cut off oil deliveries or more openly align itself with China or Russia. But neither would be in Saudi Arabia’s interest. The country still needs our oil markets, and in facing down Iran, it knows U.S. defense systems are far superior to those produced in China or Russia. Saudi realpolitik requires the country to stay anchored closely to the United States.

I sincerely hope the crown prince reverses course and decides to increase Saudi Arabia’s oil production to stabilize the global economy. His refusal to do so, and instead side with Russia at this defining moment, is just the latest reminder of the myriad ways that Saudi Arabia continues to operate against U.S. national interests. Often, Saudi and U.S. interests align. And when they do, we should be partners. But at this moment—in this national emergency—Saudi Arabia’s clear decision to choose our adversary over us is more than enough proof that our relationship must change.

Chris Murphy is a U.S. senator from Connecticut. He serves as the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism.