NEW YORK: US President Joe Biden should stroll down Riyadh City Boulevard, the city’s thriving entertainment hub, to become aware of the massive social transformation taking place in the Kingdom, according to the journalist and official of American media Karen Elliott House.
Author of the book On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Futurepublished in 2012, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist – who was editor of the wall street journal and President of Dow Jones International – has a long-standing relationship with the Kingdom. It traces its evolution from the early 1970s to the present day.
“I find it hard to measure how much the situation has changed for women and young people,” she told Arab News ahead of Mr Biden’s visit, adding that the transformation of the Kingdom over the past decade, if only when it comes to individual rights, is nothing short of “breathtaking”.
“The best thing President Biden can do, frankly, is to walk down Riyadh City Boulevard to see what’s really going on in the country,” she says, noting he also needs to look at economic reforms and social affairs of the Kingdom.
“All these men, women and children are relaxed and having fun. The women are no longer seated in one part of the house and the men in the other, the young people are no longer separated. They sit together at Starbucks, like here [aux États-Unis]working on their computers and chatting.”
Although she is very pessimistic about the possibility that the American president can change his negative attitude towards the Kingdom, she hopes that he will use his meetings with the Saudi leaders to rebuild the historic relationship between the two nations.
Mr. Biden arrived in the Kingdom on July 14 to hold talks with Saudi leaders and other Arab leaders. Observers expect the issue of oil production to be at the top of the agenda, in light of soaring global energy prices, given the war in Ukraine and the resulting Western embargo on Russian oil and gas.
Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern oil producers are reluctant to increase production at Washington’s behest. The US President’s tour of the region is therefore widely seen as a charm offensive to mend broken ties with the Kingdom.
“Personally, I’m not expecting much because I think this meeting is happening for the wrong reasons,” says Karen Elliott House.
“President Biden is here for selfish reasons and acting in his own self-interest. He is trying to improve his dire position by trying to secure the oil, which will help reduce the price of it. Its real purpose is not to alleviate national pain.”
“I’m not saying he likes the United States actually suffering, but his biggest goal is to help himself, not the country. This trip will therefore be mainly a propaganda tour and not a political trip.”
Despite her doubts about the president’s intentions, she believes it is “extremely important that the United States and Saudi Arabia rebuild security cooperation to contain and deter Iran by the time Tehran has enough material.” fissile weapons to acquire nuclear weapons». Meanwhile, talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal (officially known as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”) continue to lose momentum.
“We should work hard to rebuild a relationship that is absolutely in our interest, since the Iranians are committing atrocious acts in the region. Moreover, I believe that they have the firm intention of producing a nuclear weapon. If anything happens there, it will be a potential disaster not only for Saudi Arabia, but for the whole world,” she added.
“We have to be concerned about security around the world, yes, but in the Middle East and in the South China Sea in particular, because if we are not ready to cooperate with countries like Saudi Arabia, the young Saudi generation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is much more willing to cooperate with Russia and China.”
“Their parents, being anti-Communists, were much less willing to do so. But the mood is different now in Saudi Arabia. We simply cannot bully the Saudis and expect them to reach out to us when we need them.”
US-Saudi relations have not always been like this. After US President Franklin D. Roosevelt met King Abdulaziz, in 1945 on the US cruiser USS Quincyin the Suez Canal, a close bond has been forged between their countries.
The two leaders had a great effect on each other. King Abdulaziz said he and Roosevelt were sort of “twins.” Both were about the same age; in addition to being heads of state with heavy responsibilities, they were farmers at heart and had fragile health.
Despite their differences over the future of Palestine, the friendly atmosphere that prevailed at that meeting on the Great Bitter Lake laid the foundation for a bilateral relationship that has endured for decades, despite conflicts and disasters.
Indeed, the personal relationships between successive US presidents and Saudi monarchs have been a defining factor in setting the tone for relations between the two countries.
In the decades immediately following World War II, the United States and Saudi Arabia were closely allied in their opposition to the spread of communism and in their support for oil price stability and human security. oil fields and shipping routes.
The nations stood together in the face of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and during the Gulf War to expel the forces of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991.
Nevertheless, this relationship has been threatened by many obstacles along the way. It was put to the test during the oil embargo of 1973, then in 2001, following the terrorist attacks of September 11 against Washington and New York.
“At that time, the American public was very angry with Saudi Arabia, which is not usually the case,” she continues. “But, on both occasions, the US government worked very hard to keep the relationship as healthy as possible despite public anger. Of course, that is no longer the case today.”
During his campaign for the 2020 presidential election, Mr Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah state’, both in Washington and abroad, to cut off all support for the coalition intended to restore legitimacy to Yemen in the war against the Houthis, backed by Iran.
He also cut personal ties with Saudi heir Prince Mohammed following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018 inside the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. In September 2020, the Attorney General of Saudi Arabia delivered the final verdict against eight people convicted of the murder; five of them were sentenced to twenty years in prison, a sixth to ten years and the last two to seven years.
“President Biden personally led the incitement campaign against Saudi Arabia. I don’t think the public is as disturbed by Saudi Arabia as the president himself,” adds Karen Elliott House.
“That’s the big difference, for me, with the ups and downs of the past. The oil embargo and 9/11 are big setbacks. But this low is much worse and is not driven by an action by Saudi Arabia, but rather by a reason the President chooses to focus on by primarily blaming the Crown Prince and then sanctioning the entire country.”
She views President Biden’s shunning of the Crown Prince as an insult to all Saudis.
“If the Saudi king refused to speak to President Biden, I think many Americans would feel insulted,” she said. “The other way around is even more important, because Saudi Arabia identifies with its leader more than the Americans.”
“So I think the Saudi people have taken it as an insult that the president is not talking to the crown prince who runs the country on a day-to-day basis.”
She believes that Mr. Biden was keen to berate Saudi Arabia to win the sympathy of progressive members of Congress.
“I personally think this is all now part of his effort to appeal to progressives – people who are deeply anti-Saudi,” she argues.
“He seeks more to woo them than to reflect his own innate or learned views. It’s like many other things he does. He’s been far more progressive and pro-abortion than he ever was as a senator or vice president.”
Karen Elliott House is well placed to talk about changing attitudes in Saudi Arabia, having followed the country’s progress closely during frequent visits to the Kingdom. In particular, she sees King Salman’s decision to put the crown prince at the helm of the nation’s business plan as a watershed moment that Mr Biden would be wise to acknowledge.
Saudi Arabia “risked ending up like the old Soviet Union, where elderly and infirm leaders came and went before disappearing because the old brothers got older and older. How could they have implemented changes without exhausting themselves?” she asks.
“The good news is that King Salman managed to do this. He brought in a young chef. Whatever people think of this young leader, he is very confident and very firm. He has a vision and, above all, the time to implement it. This is what previous Saudi leaders, including King Abdullah, did not have.”
This text is the translation of an article published on Arabnews.com
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President Biden should use the visit to rebuild Saudi-American ties