U.S.-Saudi Relations

Wednesday, September 7, 2022
Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, Council on Foreign Relations

Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations


Anchor, BBC World News America

Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR, and Martin S. Indyk, distinguished fellow at CFR, discuss the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and President Biden’s July visit. Laura Trevelyan, anchor of BBC World News America, moderates.

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We are delighted to have Laura Trevelyan here to moderate today’s discussion on U.S.-Saudi Relations.

Laura Trevelyan is the anchor of BBC World News America. She was the BBC’s UN correspondent from 2006 to 2009, and a political correspondent for BBC News in the United Kingdom, where she began her BBC career reporting from Northern Ireland on the Good Friday Agreement. She has reported on humanitarian and peacekeeping work in Haiti, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and on many U.S. elections. And she is the author of two books and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. 
So I’m going to turn it over to her now to introduce our speakers and moderate the conversation before we go to all of you for your questions and comments. So, Laura, thanks for doing this and over to you.

TREVELYAN: Thank you very much, indeed, Irina. Thank you so much to everybody who is joining this conversation, which I think will also become a discussion. Thank you to the Council for this invitation. So, yes, we’re going to talk today about the future of U.S.-Saudi relations, informed particularly by the light of President Biden’s July visit to the kingdom. And who better to guide us through this discussion than our panelists.

We have Steven Cook. He is the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa studies, and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for tenured international relations scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations, a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine, and expert on Arab and Turkish politics, as well as U.S.-Middle East policy, and the author of many books.

We’re also joined by Martin Indyk, who’s a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as the U.S. special envoy, of course, for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from 2013 to 2014. He was also a U.S. ambassador to Israel, an advisor to President Clinton, a member of the National Security Council. Also author of numerous books.

Now, Steven and Martin coauthored a Council Special Report on the subject of U.S.-Saudi relations—which, if you haven’t read it, I would thoroughly recommend it—and they make the case in it for a new U.S.-Saudi strategic compact. Now, they wrote that ahead of President Biden’s—or, around the time of President Biden’s visit. So we can talk about what they’re suggesting there and how it’s all worked out. But first of all, I would just—before we get to the future of U.S.-Saudi relations, because the past informs the present, we’re going to start with the past. And I should say that at about twenty-five past 1:00, I will end my discussion with Steven and Martin and open up the floor for questions from all of you. 

But first of all, Steven, I’d just like to ask you, I found this really so interesting, the backdrop that you lay out, to the, if you call it, a close if uneasy relationship for some three-quarters of a century between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. But in the beginning, it was all about oil, wasn’t it?

COOK: That’s quite right. First of all, thank you so much, Laura, for presiding over this session. And thanks to everybody who’s called in. And it’s great to be with my coauthor, Martin Indyk, who is just an accomplished and skilled diplomat. And he used those skills getting this—getting this report out. So was extremely, extremely helpful to us.

Indeed, the relationship has been essentially based on, first, America’s commercial interests in the Gulf, and in particular in Saudi Arabia, dating back to the 1930s. And then after 1971, with the British withdrawal east of Suez, the United States became increasingly involved in the Persian Gulf. And the prime directive, the prime reason why the United States was so—became so directly involved over the course of between 1971 up through 1991, and then on through the subsequent thirty years, is primarily because of oil.

The Middle Eastern oil was critical to the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. Seventy-five percent of the oil used in the Marshall Plan came from the Persian Gulf. The vast majority of it was from Saudi Arabia. And in the decade of the 1950s, stretching in the 1960s, about 85 percent of Europe’s oil came directly from Saudi Arabia. The idea that you needed to have a functioning capitalist West to insulate Europe—and the stability of Europe was of critical importance to the United States—you needed to have Middle Eastern oil to have successful economies in Western Europe.

And thus was the American interest in Saudi Arabia and the continued free flow of energy resources not just from that region but from—not just from that country but from the region more generally. In exchange, the United States increasingly provided security to Saudi Arabia. And that’s really the basis of the relationship. My former colleague Rachel Bronson wrote a book in which she explained how the Saudis played a critical role during the Cold War in their own anti-communism. But at its basis, this was an oil for security relationship. In recent years it’s been oil for security for weapons relationship. 

But once again, that is a function of the fact that Saudi Arabia has been such an important producer, the swing producer, of oil and, as we’ve seen most recently, the one country that had the ability to produce more oil relatively quickly and cheaply to make a difference in the global oil market, and subsequently what Americans pay at the pump. The Saudi leadership chose not to go that route, however, despite President Biden’s request, but we’ll get into that.

TREVELYAN: We certainly will get into that. So thank you for that backdrop. And, Martin, if you could just bring us up to date, perhaps, and just tell us why you and Steven wanted to lay out the case for a new U.S.-Saudi strategic compact? And if you could sum up what that is.

INDYK: Thank you, Laura, for hosting us today. The basic compact that Steven described, which was oil for security, is one that has essentially be shaken by recent developments in U.S. and Saudi policies. The United States essentially drawing down in the region, ending its involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were seen to have been highly counterproductive, focusing on more pressing geostrategic threats from Russia—an aggressive Russia in Europe, and a rising China in Asia, becoming, in the views of the Saudi leadership, a much less reliable guarantor of its security.

And on the other side, the United States, looking at a new leadership in Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and seeing a young, brash, ruthless, headstrong leader more likely to get Saudi Arabia and the United States into trouble than to serve as a reliable partner. Taking his country and the rest of the GCC states into a war in Yemen that was highly destructive of Yemen and caused a dramatic humanitarian crisis and worsened Saudi Arabia’s security situation. A siege of Qatar—neighboring Qatar which broke apart the GCC and essentially pushed Qatar into the hands of a waiting Iran. All of these things and more, particularly the way in which MBS—as he came to be known—was treating his own dissenters within Saudi Arabia. In particular his ordering of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident journalist. 

All kind of combine to raise real questions on the part of the Saudis in terms of the reliability of the United States, and on the part of the United States in terms of the reliability of the Saudis. And all of this comes at a time when the oil market is in a particular tight situation, when the expectation that the world would no longer need as much oil because we were shifting to sustainable energy sources, turned out to be wrong, that calculation. And for the next thirty years, the expectation is we’re going to need more of Saudi Arabia’s oil, not less. And on the other side, the rising threat from Iran and the sense of insecurity that the Saudis felt led to a situation which we both need each other to be responsible partners, and yet we’re not. And that’s why we felt the need for a reinvention of the relationship and a new understanding and a new strategic compact.

TREVELYAN: OK. But of course, Steven, a major problem with this issue or this idea of the need for a new strategic compact is that, as Martin was saying there, the crown prince has shown himself to be a ruthless leader. The U.S. intelligence agencies concluded with high confidence that he ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. So this is the backdrop against which President Biden goes to visit the kingdom in July, the famous fist bump takes place. Steven, what did President Biden get for that visit?
COOK: Well, not much, it turns out. I think that there were expectations going into the visit that both—American officials publicly and privately intimated that there would be some sort of deal with regard to the oil markets. In exchange, the United States would work and help to enhance Saudi security and become involved directly in ensuring Saudi security, in some way. Not necessarily providing an American security guarantee, but nevertheless would be, after years in which the Saudis had questioned American commitment, that the United States would provide evidence that it remains committed to Saudi security.

In the end, the Saudis did not end up pumping more oil. They announced in August a very modest increase of about a hundred thousand barrels. And they’ve actually announced just the other day that they are going to reduce by another hundred thousand barrels. They keep saying that this is based on their assessment of where the market is, and that they are not going to be dictated by the politics, or the geopolitics, in which the United States has sought to isolate the Russians. Russia has become an important partner of Saudi Arabia’s in what’s called OPEC+.

So what you get after the president’s visit is, as I said, a miniscule increase in oil, an American commitment in the form of sending Patriot missile batteries to Saudi Arabia, further discussion of security cooperation between the two countries, and agreements to cooperate on a variety of what I think colloquially we would call small ball type stuff. Cooperating on 5G and 6G, the next generation of cell. I think perhaps the most important thing coming out of the visit, and something that was sort of baked into it ahead of time, was the Saudi agreement to allow Israeli airliners to traverse Saudi airspace. Not just going through Bahrain and UAE, but traveling to Asia, an important step towards normalization.

Everything else doesn’t make a lot of sense to me why the president made the trip. He did go and it wasn’t just a meeting with Saudi officials. He participated in what’s called the GCC+3 meeting, the plus three being Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan, as a way of planting the flag and demonstrating to America’s partners in the region that it remained in the region and that it wasn’t leaving. This was an important statement about great power competition in the region, but still I think the overall effect has not been what the administration had wanted. And I think people are looking back and wondering whether the trip was really worth it. We haven’t seen much change in the policies of Saudi Arabia, or other countries in the region, to be quite honest.

TREVELYAN: Well, in fact, OPEC actually just announced that they’re going to cut oil production, because it seems like they like having oil at $100 a barrel. But, Martin, if I could just turn to you and also the Saudis recently jailed a woman for her tweets for forty-five years—tweets in which she appears to have criticized the crown prince. You wrote in your paper, perhaps prophetically, “If bin Salman comes to believe he now has sufficient leverage to force the Biden administration to accept him as he is, he may have little incentive to act more responsibly.” Do you think you were right?

INDYK: Regrettably, yeah. I think that beyond that statement we felt strongly that if the Biden administration did not try for this grand bargain, for this greater understanding, that the—whatever the president did would be short-lived and unsustainable. Because all of the problems have effectively been swept under the rug, instead of dealing with them. And so therefore there’s going to be a renewed deterioration, exacerbated by the sense of disappointment on the side of the United States because, as you pointed out, Laura, not only are they not increasing production, OPEC is now decreasing production. (Coughs.) Excuse me. Which is, by the way, a direct contravention of the private assurance that the crown prince gave the president that Saudi Arabia would increase production by some $200,000 a month, starting in October and going through the end of the year.

And that’s critically important for the overall effort by the United States to deal with Russia, as we head into winter, as European allies critical to the support of Ukraine are facing a really tough energy situation as a result of the tactics of Vladimir Putin—cutting off the gas, driving the price of gas through the roof. It’s really unhelpful that the Saudis are not prepared to live up to the commitments that they made in private during the president’s visit. That’s one problem.

Second problem is that rather than seeing the willingness of President Biden to go there and, as you pointed out, fist bump the crown prince, as an act of kind of reconciliation and willingness to put the past statements about Saudi Arabia as a pariah state behind the president, and try to build a new, positive relationship. Instead of viewing that in a way that it was intended, the Saudis, starting with the crown prince but in their press, have been lauding the fact that Biden came on his knees and MBS is back, and there’s nothing to be done about his—(inaudible). It’s just that United States has recognized the wrongness of its ways.

And so I think that the basic basis has now been laid for an even more serious misunderstanding between Saudi Arabia and the United States, at a time when we really need Saudi Arabia to be harmonious with our efforts, particularly when it comes to the impact of energy on the war in Ukraine.

TREVELYAN: Right. I mean, it’s, like, three-dimensional chess. There are so many things—so many strands coming together, so many moves happening at the same time. And in your paper, you talked about the relationship with Iran as being something, in a way, that the two countries could come together on, because Iran is historically an enemy of Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. is trying to contain it. But, Steven, how do you assess the state of these talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal? And what do you think the Saudis are making of that, and how that plays into, really, how little they’ve done since President Biden’s visit?

COOK: Yeah, before I get into that a little bit, I just want to add a further complication to Martin’s comments. And that is, is what makes Saudi Arabia so difficult to kind of get their minds around and figure out a way forward is the—is you have this crown prince who is, as has been described, brash, impulsive, even—(laughs)—I’ve heard people call him a sociopath. Yet, he has done a number of revolutionary things within Saudi Arabia that, absent the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, absent the intervention in Yemen, absent the blockade of Qatar, absent his reluctance to help the United States now, people would be singing his praises. 

This is someone who has reined in the religious police and the clerical establishment. Is really trying to force a change in the way in which Islam is practiced both in Saudi Arabia and his emissaries telling Muslims around the world that they need to obey the laws within their countries. That’s, I think, a pretty radical thing for a Saudi prince to do. Obviously, women can drive. Women are all over the place in Saudi Arabia, in comparison to twenty years ago. He’s unleashed young people to enjoy the things that they’ve come to enjoy when they go to school outside of Saudi Arabia.

These things are important. And when you think about Saudi futures, there’s a piece of the MBS agenda that you can’t think of a better Saudi future. And then there’s a piece that there—

TREVELYAN: So long as you don’t dare tweet about him.

COOK: Precisely, precisely. And then there’s this other piece of it where it’s worse than it’s ever been. Saudi Arabia is truly a police state with an impulsive leader, which leads to a lot of danger. And I think this really complicates things. Part of that complication is the relationship—and is the—how the United States should relate to Saudi Arabia. And part of that is Iran.

And the Saudis have built up a narrative over the course of two decades that suggests that the United States would like to replace Saudi Arabia with Iran as its primary interlocutor in the region. And going back to everything from the invasion of Iraq, which vassalized Iraq to Iran, to the unwillingness of the Obama administration to intervene in Syria, to the Arab uprisings which, especially when it came to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the belief that the Obama administration sort of helped show Mubarak the door, which in turn made Egypt neutral in the region, all the way including Yemen, and the Iranian attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais in the summer of 2019, in which the United States didn’t respond.

Take all those things together. In isolation, the United States had good reasons for doing what it did. But taken together, the Saudis have built a narrative that the United States is not committed to Saudi security or regional stability, and is going to, through the JCPOA, leave Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states at the mercy of the Iranians.

Now, they have been opposed to the original JCPOA, they’re opposed to getting back into the JCPOA. Not necessarily on the nuclear issue, on the sanctions relief piece of things. But of course, at the moment Ayatollah Khamenei is helping them out by being resistant to the United States’ efforts to get back into the agreement.

TREVELYAN: And yet, Martin, I read today that U.S. military command responsible for the Middle East and Iran is developing plans to open a facility in Saudi Arabia that will be based on testing new technology to combat the threat from unmanned drones. Now, as we know, there’s been a lot happening recently, a lot of back and forth with the Iranians and their drones. So do you think, Martin, it’s possible that despite maybe the lack of progress that we see, or we think we see since President Biden’s visit, there is something going on in terms of military cooperation against Iraq, particularly when it comes to drones?

INDYK: Yeah, I think that’s true. The military cooperation has continued, even in the worst days of the Obama administration’s relationship with the crown prince. The military cooperation was there over Yemen, actually, even more so than today. So the fact that there’s military cooperation doesn’t really get at all the other things that we’re discussing here. There’s a minimum level of common interest here on the security play. The Saudis have, as you alluded to, a big problem with Iranian drones. They’ve been used by the Houthis—or were up until the truce that was negotiated in Yemen—they’d been used by the Houthis to attack on a daily basis Saudi targets, including civilian targets. And of course, there was this Iranian attack that Steven referred to, which took out 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production, albeit only for a couple of days.

And the United States did not have a good answer, shockingly, to the kind of techniques that have been used and the technology that was used in those attacks. So, hence, the effort to try to come up with some answers beyond the standard Patriot air defense systems that we’ve put into Saudi Arabia. And so I think on the—but I regard it as a tactical thing. On a tactical level, we have a common interest in dealing with the threat from Iran. And that manifests itself in these kinds of things. The other day, the United States, in an effort to show Iran that it had a serious military option, flew B-52s with their nuclear bombs across Europe from—across—excuse me—the Middle East from England to—essentially up to Iranian airspace. So the last phase of that trip, they were escorted by Saudi fighters. And so that’s a manifestation of the way in which the two countries still work together.

And I don’t want to suggest that on the security level, on the arms sales level, there isn’t a lot of kind of continued business as usual. But there is something fundamentally wrong with the relationship that if not fixed is going to make it very difficult for us to pursue our strategic interests effectively in the region, and for Saudi Arabia to do the same.

TREVELYAN: All right, now before we open up to the Q&A, I’d just like to ask both of you if you could—because we’re running out of time already, just in forty-five seconds just to sum up your hopes for the U.S.-Saudi relationship, if you can—if you can do that, and throw it forward. So, Steven, what would you like to see in this relationship?

COOK: Well, there’s what I’d like to see in the relationship and what I expect to see in the relationship. What I’d like to see in the relationship is what Martin and I wrote, about a new strategic compact, which would take care of the issues that divide the two countries. What I think will happen is something else we wrote about, which is a realist rapprochement, which will essentially sweep the issues that divide us under the gain for short-term gain, or the promise of short-term gain, but those problems will come back very quickly to haunt the two governments.

TREVELYAN: Martin, what do you expect to see? And do you think that the Saudis are looking ahead and perhaps even thinking President Trump could return?

INDYK: For sure that’s part of their calculation. I think that they would hope for that and wish it would come about. But they can’t be sure of it. I think that given the way that the visit went, and the way things are now developing, I’m afraid that there’ll be a continued deterioration in the relationship. What I would like to see is that both sides recognize that they need to find a new way of doing business together. And that the crown prince needs to respect American interests, treat his people better, act with greater circumspection and deliberation. And in response, the United States needs to become a more reliable security partner to Saudi Arabia in a very difficult strategic environment.

TREVELYAN: Diplomatically put. Martin Indyk and Steven Cook, thank you so much for that discussion. And now I’d like to open it up to the floor for questions. And I think, Christina you’re going to just explain how that works.

OPERATOR: I’ve got it.
(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Sheikh Ubaid from the Muslim Peace Coalition.

TREVELYAN: Thank you, Sheikh. Do go ahead.

UBAID: Thank you for taking my question. In the past Soviet Union was a major nuclear threat. Therefore, we put up with these dictators in the Middle East, and they were not as tyrannical as MBS. Now that threat is gone, and China is more pragmatic and does not rattle the nuclear saber. So why do we put up with MBS and also his counterpart in this, UAE? I mean, they just do superficial reforms, just like allowing wrestling and mixing of genders while they’re putting female activists and independent Islamic scholars in jail. Because continuing to support him will further alienate the Arab and Muslim masses, and—which is not a good thing with our rivalry with China.

China is persecuting Muslims, so this is an ideal opportunity for the U.S. to win back the Muslim support that it had in the ’50s and early ’60s. MBS also decided that he could support the Israeli and Indian government, as well as have friendship with China, so that he gets the support that he—they used to get from the U.S. in the past militarily and that he would be free to— to repress his people. But those factors should be in—don’t you think should be in our analysis of the situation, so that we win the Arab and Muslim street and not just rely on these dictators who can be overthrown anytime?

TREVELYAN: Thank you for that question. Martin, would you like to respond?

INDYK: Well, Sheikh Ubaid is right that we need to take account of the street, such as it is, in the Arab and Muslim world, and that’s a very difficult thing to do. First of all, is it really one street? Probably not. There are a lot of different streets with different attitudes across the Muslim world, and different priorities. And secondly, there’s a kind of structural problem, which I’m sure he’s aware of—(laughs)—and lives with, which is a kind of structural antagonism between the Muslim world and the United States, fundamental misunderstanding on both sides of what the other’s intentions are. And there’s so much water under the bridge in this regard that it’s very hard to find ways—effective ways of rebuilding the trust and understanding between these two very large communities.

And I say this as somebody who, for many years, promoted a U.S.-Islamic world dialogue, sort—all sorts of ways, both political and economic and cultural, to try to build those bridges. And it just—not that we didn’t have some success, but it’s a very difficult thing to do. So the bottom line is that I don’t think that we can—we, the United States—can or should run its foreign policy on the basis of an applause meter in the Muslim world. I think that we need to explain ourselves better, but essentially if we don’t pursue our own interests in a wise and effective way then when—it won’t work. 

Barack Obama gave a famous speech in Cairo at the beginning of his presidency in an attempt to reach out to the Muslim world. By the end of his presidency, America’s standing in the Muslim world was at an all-time low, in the single digits in terms of Muslim public opinion. So best of intentions don’t seem to do it. I really think we’re better off being clear, being honest, and promoting our interests—which include better relations with the Muslim world but cannot be defined by that objective.

TREVELYAN: Martin, thank you very much. Of course, you served as the U.S. special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, amongst your many other roles. So you know of what you speak.
Can we take the next question, please?

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Sarah Leah Whitson, from Democracy for the Arab World Now.

TREVELYAN: Thanks, Sarah. Do go ahead.

WHITSON: Hi, Martin. Hi, Steven. I wanted to just push a little bit more for you to articulate the security interests or the interests of the United States that you now advocate. Trumping, I guess, other considerations, including compliance with U.S. laws on providing weapons to abusive governments, as well as overlooking or putting aside the war in Yemen, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the continued incarceration of women. Is it really just the need for Saudi Arabia to provide oil, which it’s not doing? You, Martin, have advocated for a withdrawal of the U.S.—a decrease of the U.S.’ military commitments in the United States. And I think Biden started on that path but hasn’t continued it. 

So I really wonder what’s changed? Why are you now again advocating for the United States to provide security guarantees to essentially a dictatorship, and a dictatorship royal coterie in exchange for oil, which Saudi Arabia is not increasing output for? And if it’s just oil why not just lift sanctions on Iran and Venezuela and Russia, if that’s the most important consideration?

TREVELYAN: Yeah. So, Steven, why should the U.S. provide security guarantees to a dictatorship, as Sarah put it?

COOK: Yeah. It’s a—I think it’s a—I think it’s a good question. I think it’s something that the Biden administration has clearly wrestled with. You have to give the Biden administration some amount of credit here for its desire to be consistent with the president’s campaign rhetoric, and what it did when it came into office. I think there’s a couple of things that had made that extremely difficult. And that is the lack of anticipation of geopolitical shock and domestic political shocks, coming in the form—and resulting in the dramatic run-up in the price of gasoline for American consumers.

And as principled as perhaps Joe Biden would like to have been, he’s also a politician who would like to be reelected in 2024 and would like Democrats to be reelected in 2022. That, more than anything, the price of gas impinged upon those two important goals. There is—there is political—parochial political interests that go into our national interest. And that is what essentially drove the Biden administration to dispatch a number of envoys to Riyadh, to seek the Saudi cooperation in pumping more oil, that eventually drove the president to Riyadh.

He did not meet with success, of course. But the view that Saudi Arabia can be helpful is not invalid. It’s just that the crown prince doesn’t necessarily want to help, perhaps looking forward to 2024, and a return of Donald Trump and an administration with which they felt they could deal more easily with. From my own perspective, I think that the idea that we can drive politics in Saudi Arabia, or we can drive politics in any country of the region, when leaders determine that what they’re doing is in their interest or is, in fact, existential, is difficult for the United States, given the fact that we don’t have the kind of resources to alter the interests or have the kind of leverage that we might imagine that we have in order to fundamentally alter the politics of a country.

It's outrageous, what MBS has done at home. The country is, in some ways, more open than it’s ever been, but MBS is ruling like a—more like his grandfather than his father or his uncle, in that he is accumulating all of the power and he is adding to that power by leveraging all kinds of modern technologies in order to create a surveillance state. I’m not convinced that there’s much that we can do about that, as long as MBS is content—intends to continue to accumulate and centralize power.

I haven’t really changed my position on that, but I do think that Saudi Arabia remains important. As Martin pointed out, in the energy transition we’re going to be more reliant on Saudi oil for the time being. If we don’t want to be complicit with Saudi Arabia, then it’s incumbent upon all of us to pursue things like a more rational energy policy. It’s incumbent upon us to think about things like lifting sanctions on a country like Venezuela, something that the Biden administration has very much sought—pursued. Lifting sanctions on Iran, something that the Biden administration has also pursued, through the JCPOA. These are not ideas that are revolutionary ideas. But the problems, particularly when it comes to Iran, lies in Tehran, not necessarily in Washington.

TREVELYAN: Right. And, Martin, Sarah was asking why are you proposing essentially security guarantees for a country that has trampled on human rights?

INDYK: Yeah. And I think that we make very clear in the paper that all of these issues—especially human rights issues—need to be addressed if there’s to be the kind of compact that we are recommending. And not just the human rights issues. It’s the issue of Yemen, of the relationship with Israel and, of course, what to do about Iran and its threatening behavior and hegemonic ambitions in the region. So all of these issues, in our view, need to be addressed in a broader understanding of where our common interests lie and what we would like or need—not like, but need—to see from Saudi Arabia in order to justify the kind of commitment to their security that we are recommending.

So far from sweeping this under the rug, that’s exactly what we’re arguing against. Is not to ignore those issues, but to deal with them openly, and reach and understanding with MBS, the crown prince, about what it is that we expect him to do and what he can expect from us if he does it. So I think that’s the key here. It’s not to ignore it, but to address it.

TREVELYAN: Thanks very much. Can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Absolutely. Our next question comes from Jim Prince from The Democracy Council. 

He writes: What is the likelihood that Saudi Arabia joins the Abraham Accords? Can you discuss the status and future of Saudi-Israeli relations?

TREVELYAN: Ah, indeed. So, Martin, what do you think? What is the likelihood that Saudi Arabia joins that accord?

INDYK: Well, eventually they will. But they’ll do it on their own timetable, which means not anytime soon. We see them doing things which we call small steps. Steven referred to it earlier, the overflight rights. It’s actually a very small step. They allowed the Israelis to fly to Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, Dubai after the Abraham Accords were signed, as their way of signaling that they basically support it, but they’re really not going to do much on their own. 

They did do this deal in the Red Sea, where two islands that had previously been held by Egypt were handed over to Saudi Arabia by Egypt. And that required a security understanding with Israel, because under the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt those islands were in Egypt’s hands, and Egypt had to commit to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea for Israeli ships and Israeli cargos going through there. And the Saudis had to take that on. If you like, that’s a kind of security normalization that the Saudis agreed to. But it’s very low-profile and not likely to get any real attention.

Saudis basically are not the same as these small countries like the UAE and Bahrain. They have a large population that’s been brought up under the anti-Israel, even antisemitic diet for decades. And they are not going to be easily turned around. And that is why the crown prince is consistent in saying that he needs to see progress on the Palestinian issue before he takes any big steps towards normalization. And because the Palestinian issue is stuck in the mud and doesn’t look like it’s going to move forward in any positive way for some time to come, I think that it’s going to take some time before we see a breakthrough between Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

And this has nothing to do with a lack of desire on the part of the Biden administration to support the Abraham Accords because they were somehow a Trump administration breakthrough, and therefore Biden doesn’t want to do it. He’s worked it hard. He’s pushed hard in various directions to try to advance the Abraham Accords because it’s a good thing. And it serves the cause of peace and it serves the cause of American interests in the region to have these countries working with Israel. But Saudis are going to be, as always, the caboose on the train, not the engine.

TREVELYAN: Thanks very much for that. Can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Our next written question comes from Sarah Robinson from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.

She writes: Has Saudi Arabia signaled concern about climate changes in their region, such as intensified drought and excessive heat and/or their potential for collaboration toward alternative energy opportunities?

TREVELYAN: Interesting question about an oil producer. Steven, what do you think?

COOK: Well, there has been a lot of talk in the Gulf broadly, but also Saudi Arabia, about climate change. And I think that there are aspects of Crown Prince Salman’s Vision 2030 which recognizes that there’s going to become a time where oil is not going to become important, and that climate change is going to affect—climate change is going to affect the region. But like many things that have happened with Saudi Arabia, there’s lots of big talk about things and much more fanfare when it comes to certain issues, and not a lot of action. The Saudis obviously are committed to continuing to be the most important producer of oil, and a swing producer of oil in the world.

And while neighbors of Saudi Arabia, Iraq—national intelligence estimate on climate that came out almost a year ago identified Iraq as one of the five most vulnerable countries to climate change. Or there are parts of the UAE that will become uninhabitable in the coming decades. The Saudis, despite talk of climate change, haven’t really signaled significant urgency to the problem. They’re much more focused on the crown prince’s flights of fancy, like, a new airline, things along those lines, than really tackling the issue of climate change. Which is affecting Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region, which is a water-scarce and very, very hot region.

TREVELYAN: Thanks very much for that. And can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from David Greenhaw from Naples United Church of Christ.

He asks: To what extent can Saudi Arabia play an increasing role in humanitarian relief? For instance, in Pakistan flooding?

TREVELYAN: Well, I guess one would also have to ask about Yemen, and what they’re doing with the situation there, which is a humanitarian catastrophe, which is, of course, related. Martin, perhaps you could address that question.

INDYK: Sure. I’ll talk about Yemen. Maybe Steve can talk more broadly about it. But in Yemen, there is a truce now. And while the Saudis have been responsible for this humanitarian disaster, they’re now getting on the right side in terms of allowing and encouraging flights to and from Sana’a to outside of the place, namely to Jordan. And, more importantly, allowing goods to flow in through the port of Hodeida, that they had essentially been blocking. And so the situation is improving on the ground, and Saudis have come to see that’s in their interests to go on the right side of this.

So they are, I think, for the time being, doing the right thing. The problem there is the Houthis, on the other side, who control the northern part of Yemen and the capital, Sana’a. Really don’t have a great stake in a truce. And as a result, we’re seeing them undertake actions that are against the truce—military actions. And I fear that over time, unless the United States and the United Nations can succeed in moving the parties to a more stable ceasefire and negotiation of the political differences, it’s going to start to unravel. And then we’ll be back in the soup again and the humanitarian crisis will rear its very ugly head.

So I think there’s some urgency in trying to seize the moment here, and trying to take advantage of Saudi Arabia’s understanding that it’s in its interests to try to end the war and get the hell out of Yemen, before the Houthis disrupt the whole process again.

TREVELYAN: And if we leave the question of Yemen to one side for a second, Steven, if you could address the question. And he was asking if the Saudis could play a role in humanitarian relief in, for example, Pakistan, where there’s been this terrible, terrible flooding?

COOK: Yeah. Look, the Saudi relationship with Pakistan is historic and deep. There’s been some problems with Pakistanis in recent years, as the Indians have made a play to become a strategic partner to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf. But I think it’s clear with the kind of humanitarian needs that Pakistan has, Saudi Arabia will be providing at least monetary assistance to Pakistan. Just a quick before— I think Pakistan’s problems are well, well beyond Saudi. A third of the country remains underwater. This requires a global—a global effort. And I think, thus far, we haven’t seen much of it. But certainly, Saudi Arabia, flush with oil revenues, can be helpful there.

Just one more point on Yemen. I think that the way in which Yemen has often been portrayed in the news media has been rather uncomplicated to actually quite a complicated situation. And I just want to echo what Martin said about the Houthis being the ones who are—seem intent on disrupting things. The Houthis win by not losing and by the Saudis continuing to be sucked into the conflict. Therefore, they do have a significant interest in prolonging the conflict. I think the Saudis obviously, by intervening in another country’s civil war thinking that they can prevail in a number of weeks or months, made a huge mistake. And all of the things that they feared have come true, as a result of their intervention. 

But now they are seeking to get out and have been successful in helping to provide humanitarian assistance, whereas the Houthis have—as I said, don’t have a strong interest. Having met with the Houthis, these are not—these are not a nice group of people. And one can imagine them wanting to prolong this conflict to press their advantage.

TREVELYAN: Thanks for that. And do we have any more questions? We have just a couple of minutes left.

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from James Patton from the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. 

He writes: There has been a palpable decline in the social, political, and educational influence of the conservative ulema in the kingdom. One imagines this is causing some unseen frustration. What direction will this take, based on your observations? Is there a threat of significant backlash?

TREVELYAN: Well, it’s an excellent question. I’ll ask it of both of you. Martin, would you like to go first?

INDYK: I’d rather Steven went first. (Laughter.)

COOK: I think what happens within the clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia is a lot like what happens with the royal family. Behind the scenes, it’s very hard to divine precisely what’s going on there. But I think that the possibility of a backlash is something that I think analysts must keep as a potential outcome, should MBS be challenged in a serious way. 

One of the allies of a challenger will be the cleric—the conservative clerical establishment, which, you’ve seen, obviously gets its standing reduced dramatically over the course of MBS’s rise to power. And looking over—out over many decades in which he will likely be the king, they are faced with a diminished role. So if he gets into trouble, if there’s a significant challenge from within the royal family, one can imagine the clerical establishment—or, factions of the clerical establishment joining with opposition to MBS.

TREVELYAN: Thanks for that. Yeah, go on.

INDYK: I’d just make a broader point here about this delicate, high-wire act that MBS is walking. And that is that he is a modernizing reformer, dragging his country from the seventh century, sixth century, into the twenty-first century in terms of social change. It’s dramatic. It’s having a profound effect internally. The number of women, I’m told, that have now entered the workforce is 25 percent, which is a huge jump and has a profound impact on cultural and social relations in the kingdom.

And so in a sense, we should all want him to succeed. And not just for the sake of the people of Saudi Arabia, but because Saudi Arabia is a leader in the Muslim world, because the king is the custodian of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. What happens in Saudi Arabia will have a profound ripple effect across the world—the Muslim world. And so if he succeeds in reconciling Islam with modernity, it’ll be profoundly important. And so we should want him to succeed, because the consequences of failure are really—could be quite profound.

But on the other hand, that cannot be used as an excuse to give him a pass on the other things that he does that are egregious. And we’ve discussed them all. So there’s a tension there. And it’s very hard to navigate. But if there’s any one point that I’d like to make, we tried to make it in our paper, is that just by kind of whistling past the graveyard, by ignoring all those things, sweeping them under the rug, is not going to help him, Saudi Arabia, or the United States, or the Muslim world. And we need to have a mature and sensitive conversation that leads to a serious understanding about the way in which the crown prince moves his nation forward, so that all of mankind can benefit.

TREVELYAN: Well, I think that seems a very fitting point to leave our discussion. Martin and Steven, thank you so much for your contribution. Thanks to all the questioners. The dilemma there for the Biden administration, how do they deal with someone who Martin described as modernizing and reforming and moving his country forward, yet also someone who jails his opponents, most recently a woman deemed an opponent simply because she tweeted to her followers things that could possibly be construed as being critical of MBS, or so it appears. So thank you to all of you for joining, and I’ll hand it over to Irina to say goodbye.

FASKIANOS: Thank you so much, Laura, for moderating this discussion, and to all of you. We encourage you to follow Steven Cook’s work on Twitter at @stevenacook. And Martin Indyk’s work at @martin_indyk. You can also follow Laura Trevelyan at @lauratrevelyan. And please follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @cfr_religion. We will be sending you all a link to the video and transcript. And please do read the Council’s special report that Dr. Cook and Ambassador Indyk authored. We included that in the Zoom access information, and we’ll include it again in the follow-up note.

So thank you all again for this terrific discussion. And we wish you a very good rest of the day.

INDYK: Thank you.

TREVELYAN: Thanks very much. Bye.



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