Nearly 10% of the Senate is visiting Saudi Arabia this week — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch. That’s big news given that none of their colleagues has stepped foot in the kingdom in nearly 3 1/2 years. In light of the relationship’s importance to U.S. interests and the strains it has endured, it’s high time that U.S. lawmakers reengaged to help put this difficult but critical partnership back on track.
The case for engagement isn’t hard to make. The Saudis are Washington’s oldest Arab ally. They’re a G-20 economy and the world’s largest oil exporter and the most influential Muslim-majority country. Internally, the Saudis are implementing a set of liberalizing reforms that, while limited, are overwhelmingly in U.S. interests. Regionally, Riyadh’s cooperation is essential to efforts to counter Iranian aggression, contain expanding Chinese influence, and broaden normalization between Israel and its neighbors.
Unfortunately, like the Biden administration for most of its first two years, Congress largely chose not to engage Saudi Arabia. Indignant over the 2018 murder of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi government agents, efforts to isolate and shun the kingdom and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, became the dominant element in U.S. strategy.
It hasn’t gone particularly well. Public threats to make the crown prince a “pariah.” Suspending U.S. arms sales in the middle of a war to thwart Iranian proxies from conquering Yemen. Withdrawing U.S. missile defense batteries as Saudi cities were bombarded by Iranian-supplied missiles and drones. Promising to “impose consequences” and “reevaluate” the bilateral relationship in response to a legitimate disagreement over oil production. None of it was particularly effective in addressing U.S. concerns about the kingdom’s long-deficient human rights record. But all of it contributed to a dangerous erosion in the foundations of the partnership.
Profoundly uncertain of the reliability of their longtime U.S. patron, the Saudis now feel deeply aggrieved, increasingly vulnerable to Iran’s rising aggression and nuclear menace, and pushed to seek growing accommodation with America’s chief rivals in China and Russia. A steady divergence in policies is growing. Absent responsible statespersons on both sides, it risks metastasizing into a more fundamental breach.
Enter the senators visiting Riyadh this week. McConnell’s delegation includes six of his colleagues. Risch and Sen. Tom Cotton are each traveling separately. All will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed. It’s vitally important that they speak candidly about the damage done by the Khashoggi affair and impress upon him America’s deep concerns about other human rights abuses, particularly those involving dual U.S.-Saudi nationals. But they should also underscore their appreciation for Saudi Arabia’s importance to U.S. interests and their commitment to working with the kingdom on the steps both sides should take to repair ties and move the relationship forward on a more productive basis.
The senators should also spend time probing the crown prince’s readiness to normalize relations with Israel. Increasingly, his conditions for taking that historic leap appear far more focused on what help he can expect from Washington to mitigate the blowback from extremists both at home and regionally, rather than any unrealistic demand for progress on the stalemated Palestinian issue. Importantly, all of the senators are also headed to Israel to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made an Israel-Saudi peace deal one of his top priorities.
Finally, the senators should get out around Riyadh and see for themselves some of the remarkable changes sweeping the kingdom. Politically, it remains a repressive absolute monarchy where no challenge is brooked. But along virtually every other metric that matters to the United States — economic diversification away from oil, social and cultural liberalization, especially the empowerment of women, and cracking down on the toxic brand of religious extremism that helped spawn al Qaeda and 9/11 — Saudi Arabia is making historic strides. Far better that the United States be shaping this epic transformation than abandoning the playing field to the likes of a totalitarian China.
Though all this week’s senatorial contingent is Republican, one can only hope that upon returning to Washington, their firsthand accounts will help convince many of their colleagues that salvaging the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership should be a bipartisan concern, one that requires both the Biden administration and Congress to do their part. It’s long past time for the adults in Washington to take charge of this troubled but still-vital relationship. Kudos to these senators for doing just that.
Originally published in Washington Examiner.