Why Iran and Saudi Arabia making nice is a very big deal

“Saudi Arabia and Iran restarted diplomatic relations after seven years of high tensions and violent exchanges between them. Within two months, they will reopen embassies and have both pledged “respect for the sovereignty of states and noninterference in their internal affairs.” The two countries have been engaged in a proxy war in Yemen over the past eight years that has calmed down until recently, and have been on opposite sides of conflicts throughout the Middle East, in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. While normalization may not mean a cessation of violence throughout the region, the pause in outright hostilities between the two should be welcomed by all. The breakthrough builds on several years of talks in Iraq and Oman.”

“That China played a role shows where global power is shifting — and a meaningful change in how Chinese President Xi Jinping conducts Middle East policy. Thus far, Beijing has been cautious in taking an active role there; this diplomacy, while significant, doesn’t mean China is trying to displace the US security role in the Middle East, Freeman explained. Instead, China is “trying to produce a peaceful, international environment there, in which you can do business,” he told me.”

“China is the largest trading partner of the Gulf and most of the Middle East, and it has a real stake in an easing of tensions. Looking ahead, Saudi Arabia made a strategic choice here and elsewhere — it’s looking to join the BRICS grouping of developing countries and take on observer status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
“It indicates that the kingdom wants to focus on domestic economic development over geopolitical conflicts at present, particularly as conflicts in Syria and Yemen settle into stalemate and Iran’s leaders are preoccupied by domestic unrest,” says Andrew Leber, a political scientist focused on Saudi Arabia at Tulane University.”

Why oil prices are up and what it ~ means ~ for you

“OPEC+, meaning the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and its allies, the plus sign, announced it would cut production by over 1 million barrels of crude oil a day. For some context, there are about 100 million barrels of oil produced worldwide each

China’s alliance with Saudi Arabia signals a potential shift in the global order

“The Crown Prince, who is commonly known by the acronym MBS, has met with Xi before, most recently at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Though it might seem an odd pairing, the two nations actually have quite a bit in common, including autocratic leadership, serious repression of dissent, a clear need to diversify in order to maintain economic growth, and ambitious infrastructure projects.
China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, with Chinese exports to the kingdom reaching $30.3 billion in 2021 and Saudi exports totaling $57 billion in the same year, according to Reuters. Saudi oil makes up 18 percent of Beijing’s total crude oil imports — worth about $55.5 billion between January and October of this year.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has great ambitions to diversify its economy, which has for decades relied on crude oil output. But in order to do that, it needs money — oil money. That’s at least part of why Saudi Arabia limited production in the midst of a global oil crisis and prices for crude oil remain high.

Both nations also tout ambitious infrastructure projects. The Belt and Road initiative, China’s effort to create a 21st-century Silk Road international trade route by providing the finances to develop series of ports, pipelines, railroads, bridges, and other trade infrastructure to nations across Asia and Africa, is a milestone effort for Xi. It’s also received major criticism for potentially exploiting poor nations by essentially loaning them money they can’t pay back, in some cases granting China control over these critical hubs.

Xi’s presence in Saudi Arabia, both with MBS and as part of a larger summit with Arab and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, present multiple opportunities to strengthen ties with a host of nations in the region — and to make sure that in the global power competition, those nations are, at least, not aligned with the US”

“Saudi Arabia knows it cannot depend on generous US weapons sales under Biden, so China is an increasingly viable alternative. In fact, Reuters reported, Saudi Arabia is thought to have signed $30 billion in defense contracts at this summit with China.

In forging their alliance, both nations get a strong trading partner who won’t question their policies; Saudi Arabia gets a more predictable relationship in Xi than it has seen in the switch from former President Donald Trump to Biden.”

Biden’s Middle East Trip Pits Human Rights Against Realpolitik

“Though Biden appears willing to overlook Khashoggi’s death in order to shore up America’s access to Saudi oil, he is at least on record as explicitly having condemned that murder. At a November 2019 primary debate, Biden said he would “make [Saudi Arabia] the pariah that they are” and stop arms sales to the Middle Eastern nation. A month after Biden took office, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines released a government report confirming that the Crown Prince directed the assassination. The administration also delayed most weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, in light of its continued involvement in Yemen’s brutal civil war.”

“For many Middle East analysts, Biden’s trip signals pragmatism. “A successful foreign policy for a global power such as the US cannot choose values over interests,” wrote Council of Foreign Relations president Richard Haass in a recent article. “What the Biden administration is contemplating in Saudi Arabia appears to be righting the balance.””

What Biden wanted in the Middle East — and what he actually got

“Biden, who says he went to the Middle East to address “the needs of the free world,” has explained the strengthening of relationships with Arab states and Israel as a success.

But it’s worth taking a look at what concrete victories that closeness produced.

Saudi airspace will be opened to Israeli planes — an incremental step toward normalizing relations between the two countries, yes, but more of a victory for jetliner rights than human rights. A new peacekeeping arrangement was announced for the Red Sea Islands between Egypt and Saudi Arabia; the islands have been a regional geopolitical touchpoint, but the deal is hardly a major win beyond the region. There was talk of bringing Iraq closer to its neighbors, with a new electricity initiative to connect Iraq with the Middle East. Infrastructure projects totaling about $100 million were announced for Palestinians, including 4G networks for the occupied West Bank. The latter two, while worthwhile, are minor compared to other US development and foreign aid streams of funding — and minuscule compared to annual military aid to Israel.

A moderate success was Saudi Arabia’s ongoing commitment to maintaining a ceasefire in Yemen, a worthy goal considering the destruction wrought there, in part with the support of American weaponry, though hardly an issue that demanded a presidential visit.

As for oil, we haven’t seen any grand announcements. Ahead of the trip, a US official told reporters there wouldn’t be any big energy news, and instead pointed to an announcement a month prior from OPEC that the group of oil-producing nations would increase production.

It has left observers wondering exactly why Biden made the journey.”

“A senior Biden administration official, on the last day of Biden’s Middle East trip, described human rights at the center of America’s goals — “I’d go so far, literally, to say right at the forefront of our foreign policy,” they said.

But human rights is not even at the forefront of the administration’s press releases, fact sheets, and meeting summaries.

The official touted a “Biden doctrine” for the region. In the document, values rank lowest — fifth — after bullet points about partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy, and integration. So partnerships (with unsavory leaders) and deterrence (through our security assistance) are the priorities here.”

“This Biden trip is a preview of US foreign policy in an era of great power competition with China and new fault lines of a world divided by Russian aggression. There are trade-offs. “You sanction Russian oil, and you give power to Middle Eastern autocrats,” Khalidi told me. “The only reason he’s sidling up to these human rights abusers is because of the knock-on effects of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, and the energy impact of that invasion.”

Or, as Freeman put it, “The message to the people in the region is we only care about you in the context of our great power rivalry.”

Despite the emphasis on Russia, there was little movement on solidifying a Middle East coalition in support of Ukraine. The United Arab Emirates is a major hub for Russian businesspeople and dirty money, and that seems unlikely to change. Egypt is a hot spot for Russian tourists. Saudi Arabia and Israel are still fence-sitters in the Ukraine conflict, hesitant to definitively take a side. While Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE voted to condemn Russia’s invasion in the UN resolution, none has joined the US-led sanctions against Moscow.

Yet all of these regional powers are making demands of the US to take a harder line on Iran and enable them militarily. (Wait, wouldn’t realpolitik be crafting a deal with Iran, and getting more oil production online in the process?)”

US Should Stop Playing the Supplicant to Saudi Arabia

“members of the infamous Blob, America’s foreign policy establishment, are urging Biden to do a full kowtow to Riyadh (and presumably Abu Dhabi as well), doing the royals’ bidding as before. After all, the relationship always has been about them. Years ago Defense Secretary Robert Gates observed that the Saudis were ever ready to “fight the Iranians to the last American.” Nothing has changed.
For example, Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria backed the idea of a “grand bargain,” which would trade security guarantees for Saudi concessions: “There is a way for Washington to forge a new security umbrella in the region that includes Israel, Egypt and the gulf states. It would stabilize the security environment, foreclose the prospects of a nuclear arms race in the region and provide access to energy for the industrialized world. But that path would have to include making up with Mohammed bin Salman.”

Bloomberg’s Bobby Ghosh views the problem as personal and political immaturity: “The most important partnership in the Middle East has been put in jeopardy by the peevishness of a prince and political opportunism of a president. Repairing the Saudi‐American relationship will require the first to behave like a grown‐up, the other like a statesman.”

Although Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner was more skeptical that a satisfactory accommodation could be reached, he intoned: “I hope the Biden administration is conducting internal deliberations about what concessions it would be willing to make to engage in some transactional diplomacy with Saudi Arabia. As bad as Saudi behavior has been, Russia’s bad behavior has been worse and merits a priority of focus.”

This approach, which treats murderous wars and grievous human rights violations as minor inconveniences, is a terrible idea. To start, fulfilling demands by dependent regimes would undermine Washington’s credibility. The Washington War Party has routinely insisted that the US should intervene militarily everywhere for the most spurious reasons to convince the world that it is prepared to go to war anywhere at any time for anything. Hence nonsensical claims that failing to bomb Syria over chemical weapons or stay in Afghanistan for a 21st year would trigger major power aggression around the globe. In fact, America’s adversaries distinguish between serious and peripheral issues, and act accordingly. (Which is why Moscow withdrew from Afghanistan after only ten years compared to America’s astounding two decades.)

However, US credibility really would be at stake if the administration submitted to Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s demands, acting as if it was a weak Third World state rather than global superpower. Again, putting royal interests first would encourage other defense dependents to make similarly inflated and malign demands. Washington would be playing the supplicant and would be expected to do the same elsewhere.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia, in particular, and UAE are not normal countries, either liberal democratic or even moderately authoritarian allies. The Kingdom earned a rating of just seven out of 100 by Freedom House, making it one of the world’s baker’s dozen most repressive nations and territories, dwelling in the human rights cellar along with Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Riyadh is much worse than Russia, at least prior to that latter’s internal crackdown to suppress any antiwar dissent, which made the latter much more like the KSA.

Those celebrating MbS’s recent social liberalization are merely highlighting how until recently the Kingdom was a true totalitarian state, in some ways more absolute than Mao Zedong’s China and Kim Il-sung’s North Korea. Thankfully, those who face prison for dissent now can attend a movie before being locked up! Alas, a free society that does not make.”

“Riyadh is, despite Drezner’s claim, a more malign actor internationally than Russia. The royal regime’s alleged friendship with America never meant respecting America’s interests. Especially once MbS took effective control of the government. The regime tolerated substantial financial public support for al‐Qaeda until the group attacked the royals. Saudi Arabia also kidnapped a head of government (Lebanon), blockaded and made plans to invade another friendly state (Qatar), used money and troops to enforce brutal dictatorships (Bahrain, Egypt), and subsidized jihadist forces (Libya, Syria).

Worst was the invasion of Yemen. To reinstate a pliable regime in its desperately poor neighbor, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi joined in a “coalition,” hiring countries dependent on their financial largesse, such as Sudan, which deployed ground forces in the conflict. Total deaths are estimated at roughly 400,000, 60 percent of them young children, who are particularly vulnerable to disease and malnutrition. Human rights group report that coalition activity, both air attacks and de facto blockade, is responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths.”

“In short, rewarding Saudi Arabia to further punish Russia would be a bad trade‐off, for moral as well as practical reasons. Especially since the Saudis likely would undercut any promises to increase production — cheating by OPEC members always has been systemic and endemic. Nor would increasing the flow of Mideast oil necessarily significantly intensify pressure on Russia or affect Moscow’s behavior. US economic sanctions have rarely forced regimes to act against what they viewed as fundamental political interests. The costs of such a policy would be substantial and real. The benefits would be speculative at most.

The better strategy would be for the administration to demonstrate that US officials will no longer be docile retainers for the Saudi and Emirati royals. For instance, the administration should stop helping them slaughter their poor neighbors. The US sold the aircraft, for a time refueled them, and still services the planes, supplies the munitions, and provides the intelligence. Washington should effectively ground the royal fleets by ending support services and weapons resupply. That would encourage the Saudi king to take the president’s next call.

Moreover, the administration should indicate that the well‐armed Gulf regimes are vulnerable to attack mostly because they lack domestic political legitimacy — who wants to die defending Crown Prince “Slice n’ Dice” so can he murder another critic or build another palace? US military personnel should not be treated as mercenary bodyguards, the equivalent of the civilian expatriate labor used to do most of the “dirty work” in those societies. It is past time for the Saudis and Emiratis to earn their people’s support. The KSA’s uncertainty about America’s continuing military commitment already has spurred the regime’s talks with Iran, which could ease the region’s dangerous Sunni‐Shia split. Ultimately Riyadh and Abu Dhabi should take over responsibility for their security.”

“Foreign policy sometimes requires difficult compromises. Thankfully, the Cold War is over. Russia is far less dangerous than the Soviet Union; today’s united Europe is far more able to contain Moscow than yesterday’s Western Europe. If Washington officials are going to confront Russia over domestic oppression and foreign aggression, they cannot excuse Saudi Arabia for the same.”

A Ceasefire in Yemen after Seven Years: Are US‐​Backed Saudi/​Emirati Aggression and War Crimes Finally Over?

“After years of attacks on civilians, the Saudis and Emiratis are guilty of manifold war crimes. The United Nations Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, subsequently disbanded under Saudi pressure, last fall described the horror: “Since March 2015, over 23,000 airstrikes have been launched by the coalition in Yemen, killing or injuring over 18,000 civilians. Living in a country subjected to an average of 10 airstrikes per day has left millions feeling far from safe.” Victims included “civilians shopping at markets, receiving care in hospitals, or attending weddings and funerals; children on buses; fishers in boats; migrants seeking a better life; individuals strolling through their neighborhoods; and people who were at home.”

Support for the royal aggressors made US officials into coconspirators. Reported the New York Times in September 2020: “The civilian death toll from Saudi Arabia’s disastrous air war over Yemen was steadily rising in 2016 when the State Department’s legal office in the Obama administration reached a startling conclusion: Top American officials could be charged with war crimes for approving bomb sales to the Saudis and their partners. Four years later, more than a dozen current and former U.S. officials say the legal risks have only grown as President Trump has made selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Middle East nations a cornerstone of his foreign policy.””

“Last November the United Nations Development Programme estimated Yemen’s death toll at 377,000, 70 percent of whom were children under five. Indirect causes, especially malnutrition and disease, took the majority of lives.”

“despite Washington’s shameful backing for Saudi/Emirati aggression and attacks on civilians, the royal regimes appear to have tired of their endless wars. Indeed, Ansar Allah’s strikes on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, though limited in effect, seriously embarrassed both governments. The Emiratis were particularly vulnerable since further attacks on Dubai could wreck its role as a hub for commercial activity and air travel.
In a dramatic move, the Saudis forced Yemen’s nominal president, Hadi, to yield his authority, after spending seven years justifying war to restore him. Reported The Wall Street Journal: “Saudi authorities have largely confined him to his home in Riyadh and restricted communications with him in the days since, according to Saudi and Yemeni officials.” The Houthis dismissed the move and some analysts speculated that Riyadh hoped to unite factions opposed to Ansar Allah to better wage war. However, the move effectively cleared the deck for negotiations. Peter Salisbury of the International Crisis Group opined that this was the “most consequential shift in the inner workings of the anti‐Houthi bloc since war began.”

More significant — and generating more hope — is the two‐month ceasefire that began on April 2, the first day of Ramadan, a month of fasting and reflection for Muslims. For the first time in more than seven years, the royal air war against Yemeni civilians halted. If respected, the suspension of hostilities, which was announced by UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg, could lead to a more durable settlement. Needed is a political compromise among Yemenis providing broad representation in a new government.

Still, any optimism must be tempered. Past ceasefires have collapsed and reaching agreement, especially given outside interference, will be difficult.”

Biden promised a harder line on Saudi Arabia. Why can’t he deliver?

“Since the FDR presidency, Saudi Arabia has been an important United States partner. It is a major energy producer and home to the two most significant sites in Islam, and for decades, America had provided security guarantees to the kingdom. In return, the US has depended on Saudi Arabia as a counterweight to Iran in the Middle East, an intelligence partner against terrorist groups, and a dominant investor with an enormous sovereign wealth fund. But MBS’s ruthless intransigence had put the relationship to the test.

Biden’s government-in-waiting recognized that MBS demanded a different approach. Daniel Benaim, who advised the campaign and is now a senior Middle East diplomat, searched for a way to elevate human rights. In summer 2020, he proposed a “progressive course correction” that spelled out consequences for future malign behavior.

Benaim suggested a six-month review of policy, but it’s not clear whether Biden’s State Department has conducted such a reassessment. (The State Department declined to comment on the record, as did the White House.)”

“Overall, the Biden administration has responded to MBS with an approach that keeps human rights concerns behind closed doors because, advisers say, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is so integral to US policy. By balancing the concerns of human rights activists and the Washington national-security establishment, Biden’s team has found that it is disappointing both, as well as supporters of the crown prince.

A month into office, Biden broke with Trump by releasing the intelligence agencies’ report on Khashoggi. It showed unequivocally that MBS was responsible for the killing of the Virginia resident in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Blinken announced the new “Khashoggi Ban” that would prohibit government agents who target dissenters from entering the US.

It was a good step, but Biden didn’t follow through. The formal ban was implemented against 76 Saudis but not the prince himself. Critics say true accountability would have meant putting MBS on the banned list. MBS hasn’t visited the US since Trump, but that relates to an implicit policy of distancing him, not a formal declaration that he’s banned. (MBS’s brother, who was reportedly involved in the Khashoggi operation, quietly visited the White House in July.)”

“On the campaign, Biden said he would stop supporting the war in Yemen. More than 375,000 Yemenis had died by the end of last year, and the devastating death toll led Obama alumni to take responsibility for supporting the 2014 Saudi invasion. The State Department says it is working with Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen.

Last February, Biden ended “offensive” support for the war. Yet last month the Senate, with White House encouragement, approved a $650 million arms sale to the kingdom for “defensive” weapons to Saudi Arabia, a distinction that many experts reject.”

“Biden has made one big move: He won’t talk to MBS directly. The president, thus far, has only held phone calls with his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. This has reportedly angered MBS. But it’s an insufficient form of retribution. “The big punishment for murder and dismemberment of a journalist is you don’t get to meet the president yourself? You can meet with anyone else and get all the weapons you need,” said Andrea Prasow of the Freedom Initiative. “The consideration of human rights is not integrated into US policy. It’s an add-on.”

Why is there so much hedging in US policy toward Saudi Arabia, even when the Biden administration has set out to shake things up?”

“The Biden team now seems resigned to a close relationship with Saudi Arabia in order to achieve its own policy objectives, like cheap gas prices and an accord with Iran.”

Oppressive Regimes Reach Beyond Their Borders

“”In countries like Vietnam and Australia, Chinese agents have simply abducted their prey, whether the targets were dissidents or people accused of corruption,” ProPublica reported after its own investigation.

While “China conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world,” according to Freedom House, it’s hardly alone. Russia’s overseas effort “accounts for 7 of 26 assassinations or assassination attempts since 2014, as catalogued in Freedom House’s global survey”; former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were targeted in the United Kingdom in 2018 in an attack that resulted in the death of a local woman. Saudi Arabia’s government plotted what a UN special rapporteur described as “a premeditated extrajudicial execution” of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. Turkey, in turn, has developed a reputation for leaning on other governments “to hand over individuals without due process, or with a slight fig leaf of legality,” in the words of the report.”