We Really Need to Fix the Saudi Problem

By Marc Polymeropoulos

Marc Polymeropoulos served 26 years in the CIA before retiring from the Senior Intelligence Service in June 2019.  His positions included field and headquarters operational assignments covering the Middle East, Europe, Eurasia and CounterTerrorism.  He is the recipient of the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the Intelligence Commendation Medal, and the Intelligence Medal of Merit.

OPINION — In the annals of US history in the Middle East, there are few moments ingrained in the psyche of US government officials more important than the photo taken on February 14 1945, where President Franklin Roosevelt met with Saudi King Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy. 

Our need for oil coupled with Saudi Arabia’s strategic location were the bedrocks of a diplomatic and security relationship that served both countries for decades.  And generations of these US government “Arabists”- a particular class of diplomats and civil servants who learned Arabic and spent their careers in the middle east, and who were made famous by Robert Kaplan’s brilliant book by this name, later served in Saudi Arabia, whether at our embassy in Riyadh or our consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran. 

Saudi was ground zero of the USG’s commitment to our key middle east partners.  For the intelligence community, service in Saudi Arabia was considered an essential stepping stone.  Station chiefs over the years ended up as senior leaders in the intelligence community.  This was overseas service at its finest. 

Whether dedicated to fighting communism during the Cold War, or later working hand in glove in the global counter terrorist struggle, our Saudi partners proved to be strong allies.  All was not always right in the relationship, that included 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 coming from Saudi Arabia.  But we overcame these hurdles, particularly with the Saudi intelligence services commitment to internal reforms (to counter problems of radicalization in the Kingdom) as well as our joint partnership in battling al-Qa’ida globally. 

Everything changed in 2018, when a team of Saudi agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.  Khashoggi was a US citizen and an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family. Turkish officials said the order to kill him came from the highest levels of the Saudi government, while Saudi officials insisted that it was a rogue team who carried out the murder. 

Despite efforts by the Trump Administration to prioritize other issues over the horror of Khashoggi’s killing, a deep schism formed between the US and Saudi Arabia, to include plummeting support for the U.S. – Saudi relationship in Congress.

Here we are in 2022, and the relationship is still in a deep freeze, a situation that does not serve either country’s interests.  We have a collective adversary in Iran, whose regime must take great satisfaction that US and Riyadh remain at odds.  Our two countries together united against the threat posed by Iran’s regional aspirations is far better than two countries divided.  So, how do we get this back?

As a longtime officer of the CIA, who spent the majority of my career working on middle east issues, this status quo cannot stand.  Both sides have retreated to their corners.  The Saudis unfortunately have remained “neutral” in the Russia-Ukraine conflict (thereby directly helping Russia stay solvent by keeping crude oil prices elevated), and the US has not paid enough attention to Saudi’s legitimate security concerns in particular, not coming to their aid in a timely fashion after the Yemeni Houthis launched drone and missile attacks on the kingdom.

Exacerbating this is the unwise decision by Saudi Arabia to provide former USG envoy Jared Kushner with a two billion dollar investment, re-opening a heated charge from the Biden administration that MBS and his government openly side with former President Trump.  All the while, Iran continues its regional ambitions, causing mayhem in their support of groups such as Hizballah, the Syrian government, the Houthis, and Shi’a groups in Iraq.  And of course, their steady march toward a nuclear weapon.  Who wins in this time frame?  The mullahs in Iran.  

It will take two to tango to fix this US-Saudi mess, so here is my suggested course of action. 

This will take some courage on both sides, and an acknowledgment that failure to resolve our differences will only make both of our nations less secure. 

The Khashoggi affair is a stain on the kingdom.  And, in their hearts, the US national security sector surely believes that MBS was directly responsible for Khashoggi’s tragic death, despite any denials.  But at this point, I think there is nothing left to do.  MBS will never publicly admit any complicity.  We need to accept this – and if we cannot, nothing can move forward.  Sometimes in international relations, such difficult choices are necessary. 

Not to ever excuse the Saudis for the killing of Khashoggi or for their continued imprisonment of human rights activists (which should be a continued strong focus of US pressure), but according to all my contacts in the region, things are changing in the kingdom today for the better.  Women can drive, the hijab is not ubiquitous, and the once dreaded religious police are nowhere to be seen.  Saudi Arabia remains a country in transition.  Not at all perfect, particularly on human rights, but generally going in a better direction on a variety of issues we as Americans care about. 

Often with our allies, there is an unwritten rule–measured public criticism of each other is accepted with the understanding that private dialogue and communication will continue resulting in an enduring relationship.  This type of diplomacy is not new and it helps both sides manage their domestic agendas and “save face,” something important in Arab culture.  The Khashoggi issue is a perfect example of this. 

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We should tell the Saudis privately that on occasion we must publicly criticize them, particularly on human rights, but in the end, we will not take any action that would sever the relationship. The problem is that this level of trust and dialogue has been lost with the Saudis, which is a true indicator of the state of the relationship.

What the Saudis should do. 

MBS should stop personalizing his grievances with the US, and with the Biden Administration in particular.  A recent television show on the Middle East Broadcast Corporation that mocked President Biden’s age was cringeworthy.  Nothing gets on MBC like this without formal Saudi approval, and this seemed petty.  MBS should take the high road and not stoop to such levels. 

MBS should help on Ukraine, re OPEC.  This is an absolutely critical part of any rapprochement process with the US.  The price of gas is a serious issue for the American people, and we need Saudi assistance in bringing prices down.  And Russia benefits from elevated prices. There can be no more waffling on this issue.  A clear message must be sent over and over to MBS:  Russia is not your friend.  The US is.  Stop this flirtation with Putin.  Is Saudi Arabia really more secure in a relationship with Putin, the war criminal and international pariah?  I think the answer is clear. 

Finally, and by far the most important piece of how to fix the relationship with the US, the Saudis should move more overtly towards a formal peace treaty with Israel.  It is common knowledge that Bahrain never would have taken the step to make peace with Israel without Riyadh’s approval. The worst kept secret in the middle east is that the Abraham Accords were approved behind the scenes by Riyadh.  While the grand slam would be a formal Saudi-Israel peace treaty, this likely is too soon for the Saudis to move forward full bore, given their custodial responsibilities over two Muslim holy sites that risks the anger of a billion Muslims and Saudi King Salman’s historic support for the Palestinian cause.  But we are inching closer to this time.  Imagine in the future if MBS travels to Israel for an overt bilateral meeting.  That should be the goal in the end.  More overt signaling that a Saudi-Israel peace treaty is in the offing would be very helpful, particularly in Congress, where anger over the Khashoggi affair remains quite real.       

What the US should do:  We should return an ambassador to Riyadh as soon as possible.  Without a high-level envoy, the Saudis-whatever we tell them-will not believe we are re-engaging.  The recent nomination by President Biden of Michael Ratney to the post is a positive first step.  He has experience in the region, speaks Arabic, and was most recently the charge’ d’affaires at US Embassy Jerusalem.  This would be the first career foreign service officer serving in Riyadh in many decades.  While the Saudis may think a political appointee with direct ties to Biden may have been preferable, I would suggest a different tact.  To me, it is a sign that there is serious work to be done to fix the relationship, and that Saudi Arabia remains a key regional player. Diplomacy is for professionals, not political appointees.  Ratney is up to the task, and the Saudis will find him an outstanding interlocutor.  

We should also consider high level Biden administration visits with the Kingdom, precisely what Secretary of State Antony Blinken did when he recently traveled to Abu Dhabi.  Is this saying “I’m sorry,” as the media portrayed Blinken’s visit?  No, of course not.  The Saudis most certainly want to feel respected, so a Blinken visit is the right call.  The visit of CIA Director William Burns in late April was a very good first start.  Blinken should go next, as confidence building measures are enacted.  And if such gradual and deliberate moves build momentum, a long rumored visit by President Biden during his middle east swing this summer certainly is possible.

We should make a firm commitment to defend Saudi Arabia both from Houthi attacks (in the near term) and of course Iran in the long term.  This means weapons sales, which are needed in order to reassure the Saudis of our commitment to their security.  Words are not enough.   The Saudis are concerned about the Houthis (as a terrorist threat to Saudi infrastructure targets), and an aggressive and potentially nuclear-armed Iran, that wishes to dominate the region.  Tangible weapons are required, and the US must come through.   There will be some Congressional opposition to this, but the Biden administration must prevail.  For strategic reasons vis a vis Iran, it is the only path to take.

I recall sitting in the Saudi desert, with a Saudi security official, a decade ago.  I was visiting from the US, and I was there to discuss critical counterterrorist cooperation.  A lamb was prepared in my honor, and the Saudis were in fine form, hosting me with grace and respect.  And I reciprocated, noting my thanks for their hospitality. I even ate the brain, which is considered a delicacy. We laughed. “Marc, you are an Arab at heart, you are one of us.”  

Yes, we have many differences with the Saudis.  But all is not lost.  Years ago, I briefed then-Interior Minister Mohammad Bin Nayf on counterterrorism issues.  He reacted kindly and warmly, comfortable in the notion that security ties kept both countries safe. This was not a formal briefing. It was a discussion amongst friends, as our common security interests brought us together.  We need a return to this feeling, that the strategic relationship is paramount.  Both sides will win in the end. 

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