On the campaign trail, President Biden pronounced Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” for suspicion of his involvement in Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination. Yet in the coming days, Mr. Biden will visit Saudi Arabia and meet with MBS — a pariah no more.
The visit represents a welcome, if perhaps somewhat embarrassing, rebalancing of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Yes, it’s true that the House of Saud rules the kingdom with an iron fist. But it’s also true that the United States has enjoyed a mutually beneficial partnership with the desert nation for almost a century, and that we have much to lose from ostracizing Saudi Arabia.
Strengthening, rather than undermining, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is important not just because the kingdom helps stabilize global oil markets — which it does — but because it tries to keep the peace in the perpetually turbulent Middle East. That’s in stark contrast to the actions of Iran, the most menacing power in the region and Saudi Arabia’s archrival.
The difference between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not one of relative benevolence at home. They are equals in repression.
Rather, the difference is that Iran has been a persistent menace to its neighbors and sponsored terrorists in a number of countries. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has tried hard to maintain order and thwart terrorist groups.
Iran has been a steadfast ally of Bashar al-Assad in the decadelong civil war in Syria, fighting alongside the ruthless dictator in a conflict that has claimed nearly 500,000 lives and uprooted roughly 13 million people.
Iran is the leading supporter of Hezbollah and its militias in control of southern Lebanon and other extremist groups in Palestine. Iran has been a major source of instability in neighboring Iraq and backs the Houthi movement seeking to overthrow the legitimate government of Yemen. On top of that, of course, the regime in Tehran has long sought the ability to make nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration focused on stalling — though not stopping — Iran’s nuclear program and largely overlooked other problematic areas of Iranian conduct. The focus culminated in a 2015 agreement, the JCPOA, that purported to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons for a decade in exchange for relief from international sanctions.
Saudi Arabia and other regional powers, including Israel, staunchly opposed the JCPOA as inadequate, irritating the Obama administration. Relations warmed when former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement. His administration also increased weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and obtained an increase in oil production that kept gas prices down.
Iran exploited the assassination of Mr. Khashoggi to the hilt to discredit MBS and Saudi Arabia. The righteous focus on human rights shone a spotlight solely on Riyadh, however, not on Teheran’s fully comparable — and even worse — abuses.
Yet this one-sided anti-Saudi approach couldn’t last, notwithstanding the effort under Mr. Biden to revive a nuclear deal with Iran. Especially in light of Russia’s war with Ukraine, the ability of Saudi Arabia to help stabilize the global oil market is too important to ignore.
In conjunction with June discussions of the Biden visit, Saudi Arabia has already announced an increase in production. Mr. Biden will certainly press MBS for further increases when they meet.
Saudi Arabia has also been a key enabler of further rapprochement between Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors. Underlying it is a mutual interest in checking and deterring Iran.
The Obama and Biden administrations have both emphasized that the purpose of a nuclear deal is to keep a lid on Iran’s strategic ambitions in the region. Now, however, a renewed agreement seems unlikely. That makes regional efforts to check Iran’s influence even more important.
In this, and on oil, Saudi Arabia has been and can continue to be a genuine partner for the United States. Mr. Biden should indeed press MBS on human rights in their discussions — and even ask for a public trial of those connected to Mr. Khashoggi’s assassination. And though he should commend MBS on liberal steps, like allowing women to drive, he should also advocate for the release of political prisoners and greater freedom of speech and press.
Mr. Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia creates a real opportunity to have those conversations. MBS knows that the United States will remain the sole international power that can provide the Saudis with support and protection. It’s in the best interest of both of our nations to preserve that relationship — during this administration, and future ones.
• Dr. Tarek Kteleh is a practicing medical doctor and president of Rheumatology of Central Indiana. He is the author of “The Six Pillars of Advocacy: Embrace Your Cause and Transform Lives.”