The U.S.-Saudi relationship has lately endured some of the worst tensions in its history. But President Joe Biden’s first visit to the Middle East next month, with stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia, offers a surprising opportunity — if both sides will take it.
A wide range of issues have stoked disagreement and mistrust between the longtime partners: Iran nuclear talks, the war in Yemen, the Saudi posture on U.S. rivals Russia and China, human rights (including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi), social reform in the Kingdom, oil production and prices, and the U.S. commitment to the Middle East.
That’s a lot to tackle in one presidential visit of perhaps 24 to 48 hours. As senior officials from both countries travel between Washington and Riyadh to lay the groundwork, they should be realistic about what is achievable. One principle that should guide preparations: Not all bilateral differences can be resolved at once. However tempting a grand bargain may be, the relationship is more likely to be repaired step-by-step.
What is most critical to address first? Each side has core strategic interests for which they need to see the other side demonstrate concern. Cementing a set of understandings around these issues would make a visit valuable, even while other disagreements remain.
For Saudi Arabia, the core strategic interest is ensuring its defense against the threat posed by the regime in Iran and its proxies, particularly the Houthis in Yemen, who, with Iranian backing, training and arms, have launched dozens of rockets against Saudi civilian targets. Closely related is the Saudis’ desire for confidence that the United States is committed to stopping Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and that Washington retains a strategic commitment to the Middle East and to its regional partners, even as it addresses other strategic priorities in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.
Here, Biden’s experience cultivating the close U.S.-Israel alliance, while also navigating real differences, is relevant. His career-long bond with Israelis is evidence that as long as one demonstrates clear understanding and empathy for a partner’s major security fears, it is possible to have very tough discussions on a range of topics and work through areas of disagreement.