The political adage that there are no permanent friends, only interests, rings true in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, once the focus of American hopes, has been frozen out by the Biden administration.
The kingdom’s abysmal human rights record, its deadly and destructive war in Yemen and the murder and decapitation of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by order of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, made friendship with the Gulf nation hard to justify. And things got worse after MBS’s much-publicized snub of President Joe Biden after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, followed by Saudi Arabia’s refusal to honor America’s calls to increase oil production to help stabilize markets and further isolate oil-rich Russia.
When the crown prince first rose to power, there was hope. America was attracted to the shiny object of an outward-looking, modernizing authoritarian leader who seemed to be able to get things done. While MBS has proved to be some of those things, he has also shown himself to be a dishonest, impetuous thug and someone we should hesitate to embrace. So, it was not surprising when last week 31 Democratic members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging that “a recalibration of the U.S.-Saudi partnership is long overdue.” They pointed to the issues mentioned above, and added a long list of others.
Coming to Saudi Arabia’s aid was Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Herzog. Last week, he urged the United States to repair its relations with Riyadh. Herzog’s words of encouragement came in the context of negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran, which is Saudi Arabia’s chief adversary in the region. Like Israel, the Saudis are concerned that U.S. reentry into an Iran deal will not stop Iran’s regional threat and are troubled by incentives that are being discussed that would provide Iran access to billions of dollars to bankroll terrorist activities across the Middle East.
The Saudis were also the hoped-for jewel in the crown of the Abraham Accords, which the Saudis say they support but won’t join until Israel makes peace with the Palestinians. Some have also pointed out that the Saudis aren’t likely to join the Accords at a time of strained U.S. relations, since they would be looking for some sweetener from the United States, similar to that given every other Arab country that has made peace with Israel.
In a similar vein of “no friendships, only interests,” there is Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has made another about face regarding Israel. The authoritarian leader is carrying out a charm offensive after a decade of hostility and broken relations with the Jewish state. This month, Erdogan hosted President Isaac Herzog in Ankara, and said he hopes to welcome Prime Minister Naftali Bennett soon. Erdogan seems to hope that, through Israel, Turkey might be able to improve its relationship with the United States.
This is all part of a constantly shifting Middle East where no country feels secure for very long.