President Biden's Trip to Saudi Arabia

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Jon Alterman: Gregory Gause is professor of international affairs and the John H. Lindsey '44 Chair at Texas A&M University. He is a longstanding expert on Saudi Arabia. Gregory, welcome to Babel.

Gregory Gause: It's a pleasure to be back.

Jon Alterman: President Biden is just about to go to Saudi Arabia; what do you think he's going to come back with?

Gregory Gause: I think he's going to come back with more symbolic than real commitments on oil. The Saudis have already agreed to accelerate their production increases under the OPEC+ plan. I think that they will sell that again as a concession to the United States. I think President Biden will come back with some kinds of commitments that the Saudis will use their market power and their spare production capacity to try to even out the global oil market. I think he will be able to use some of that domestically. In some ways, the more important foreign policy discussion is going to be about what happens after the Iran talks fail. My assumption is that we are not going to be able to get back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and there will be domestic and regional incentives for Iran to indicate that they might be moving closer toward weaponization. At that point, I think there are going to be a lot of questions raised in the Middle East about what the United States is going to do, what the Israelis are going to do, and what the Gulf states are going to do. The more significant thing that the Biden administration comes back with from the trip might be more coordination on that response.

Jon Alterman: For the Saudis, it seems to be a very important visit. The U.S. relationship is extraordinarily important to Saudi Arabia, and you could argue that the Saudis are getting a lot more out of this visit than Biden is getting out of the trip. Even if you say it's symbolic on both sides, there's a way in which the United States is inarguably important to Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia isn't inarguably important to the United States. Are the Saudis getting more than the president is?

Gregory Gause: Before we talk about Saudi national interests, we need to ask ourselves what Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is getting out of this. I don't think that we should underestimate his desire to be rehabilitated in the U.S. diplomatic sphere after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Obviously, the Trump administration did a lot to protect him from the intense reaction in the United States. I don't want to exaggerate this, though. It wasn't a huge public opinion issue, but in the elite opinion in Washington—particularly among Democrats—the assassination of Khashoggi and the crown prince's responsibility for his death was a real shock. I think that Democrats had a particularly negative view of the crown prince after the Khashoggi murder. We saw that in the campaign. President Biden used pretty brutal language about the crown prince, specifically, and Saudi Arabia in general. I think this is the crown prince using this particular moment—when oil prices are high—and the leverage that Saudi Arabia has to get himself personally rehabilitated in a Democratic administration. I think that is really important for the Saudis. In exchange, the United States gets a return to a more normal kind of relationship with Saudi Arabia, where the president of the United States can call the leadership of Saudi Arabia and say, “Hey, you've got to help us out on oil questions." I think that is the most immediate, tangible thing. As I said, though, there is a lot of coordination that's going to have to happen when tensions with Iran inevitably rise if we don't get back to JCPOA.

Jon Alterman: You mentioned Ukraine. Do you think this visit would be happening were there not a crisis in Ukraine?

Gregory Gause: I kind of doubt it would be happening were it not a crisis in Ukraine—if only because I think if there weren't a crisis in Ukraine, oil prices might not have spiked as high as they did. The president probably would have gone to the Middle East anyway, but I’m not sure that he would have added Saudi Arabia on to the itinerary.

Jon Alterman: There is a regional summit that is connected to this visit. What do you think is possible for the president to get out of a regional summit—both in terms of public statements and assurances, or private statements and assurances. What do you think he's going to give to the regional summit?

Gregory Gause: I think the regional summit is going to be focused on Iran—at least behind closed doors. I think that the ancillary issues to Iran and its role in the region—its nuclear program, Iranian influence in Iraq, or the Houthis and the Yemeni situation—will be discussed. One of the deliverables that might come out of the visit to Saudi Arabia is, perhaps, an offer of an indefinite truce on Yemen, or some diplomatic movement there that the United States would push for, and that the Saudis would accept. Of course, if tensions with Iran escalate because we don’t get back to the JCPOA, that greatly reduces the possibility that the Iranians would use their influence with the Houthis to push for some kind of diplomatic settlement in Yemen, so I do think that Iran is going to be at the top of the agenda. I think the regional meeting is also one way for the United States to say, "Look, we're not simply going back to business as usual with Mohammed bin Salman; we are there for a multilateral meeting.” But the crown prince is going to get his photo opportunity. He’s going to get his handshake.

Jon Alterman: You've argued a couple times in Foreign Affairs in the last few months that the United States is properly focused on trying to reestablish order in the Middle East. What is the core of that argument?

Gregory Gause: I think that the biggest geopolitical issue in the Middle East is actually not Iranian nuclear weapons, the Yemen civil war, or oil prices. I think that the biggest overall geopolitical issue is the weakness of so many Arab states—the civil wars and civil disorders that are occurring in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya. Some of these are the direct result of the Arab uprisings of 2011. Some of them go back decades—with the Lebanese civil war—but as long as there are so many weakened Arab domestic situations which just invite external intervention, you're going to have a very unsettled regional picture. The Iranians have demonstrated that in countries that have a significant Shi`ite population, they are able to play into the politics of these broken regimes and these broken states in a much better way than anybody else can play into them. The Iranians have developed a playbook that includes the building of local militias, with the support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. There are not a lot of soldiers, but there are enough for training and helping out. They’ve been able to deploy those militias across borders—with Hezbollah and militias from Iraq, and even Afghanistan, participating in the Syrian civil war. They have been able to help sustain the Houthi movement in Yemen, at a very low cost. While the Iranians have some money to spend on this effort, this isn't really about money. If it were about money, the Saudis would be much more successful than the Iranians in spreading their regional influence. The key here is having proxies and allies in these Arab civil wars and broken domestic systems who want to be Iran's allies and who want to be their partners in the Iranian strategic view of the region. The Saudis don't have that. The Turks had hoped to have that with the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Muslim Brotherhood really wasn't able to sustain its early gains in the post-Arab uprisings period. It’s really the Iranians who have been able to profit the most from the situation of domestic weakness throughout the Arab world.

Jon Alterman: There was a focus in the Obama administration about trying to create greater resilience among Arab states. Is this effort to strive for order something that leads to greater resilience, or does it merely forestall the collapse of these states as they can't make a transition toward more diversified economies and deal with the energy transition?

Gregory Gause: I don't think that we have a playbook that we can use to help these states develop that kind of domestic political and economic resilience. I don't know what we would tell them. Our playbook is basically from the 1990s. The playbook is to democratize and adopt neoliberal economic policies, but that hasn't really worked to stabilize the region. I don't think that we have the answers to that question. When I talk about order, I basically mean deal with leaders and countries that have been able to maintain stability and order within their own borders and extend their influence across borders into these weaker, less orderly, less stable places. That means working with Saudi Arabia, but it also means working with Iran, and Egypt. It also means, over time, working with Syria. I think the Assad regime, as loathsome as it is in many ways, is going to come out of the civil war still governing Syria. To me, this is a minimal goal. We are not going to transform the Middle East. We tried that, and we failed. We tried to transform the region through the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the direct imposition of new regimes in those places. We also tried in the 1990s through the Arab-Israeli peace process and the encouragement of neoliberal economic policies and democratic reforms during the Clinton administration. We really did not succeed. I think that we should put aside this notion that we can change the politics of this region—whether that is change it in a democratic direction or regime change in places that we don’t like, like Iran. We have to lower our expectations and deal with countries who can deal with us. I think we are really bad at dealing with militias. We are really bad at dealing with non-state actors. We are really bad at dealing with situations where there is not a stable governing authority, but we're pretty good at dealing with countries that actually have a stable governing authority and want something from the international system. The United States is still powerful enough to be able to provide some of those goods that the international system provides, and to withhold those goods through sanctions and other methods. We have leverage in dealing with governments that are in power. We don't seem to have as much leverage with the non-state actors who are so much more important in these places where political systems are broken.

Jon Alterman: I have a two-part question. First, are you confident that these governments can navigate the energy transition without having more open politics? Second, if they don't, what are the consequences of the United States having failed governments in the Middle East after the energy transition?

Gregory Gause: Even if we make all the right choices, getting to a real energy transition will take a couple of decades, not a couple of years, but if we do get to a real energy transition, we won't care if the Middle East is stable or unstable. At least, it will not matter as much as it does today. To some extent, if we get the energy transition, the salience of the Middle East for U.S. interests will go way down. Can these countries sustain themselves, and can these regimes sustain themselves, in a time of energy transition? I think the really small, really rich ones can—like Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE—because their populations are so small, and their assets are so large. They will become true rentier states in that they will live off their investments. They won't be as glitzy, and they won't be as rich, but I think they'll probably be fine. The problem is with the mid-level states. High producers with relatively large populations, like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Algeria. States that have much lower per capita hydrocarbon resources are going to be much more problematic. We really only have one example of a hydrocarbon country facing a decline in oil prices and opening up democratically. That was Algeria in the late 1980s, and we know what happened there. There were free elections. The Islamist party won. Before the party could actually take power, though, the army intervened and there was a brutal civil war in Algeria. That is not a very good model for a successful transition. It is not that the leaders here don't know that they're facing issues. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's whole Vision 2030 project is trying to get Saudi Arabia to be less dependent on oil. He is clearly doing it based on what he sees as the Emirati model—which is that the government becomes literally a state capitalist player through investment domestically and internationally. That is what MBS is trying to do, but he has also added in some amount of 1960s developmentalism theory, which is to build big projects—like Neom, the futuristic city he wants to build up in the northwestern part of Saudi Arabia. Is that his Aswan Dam—the centerpiece of Egyptian development policy?

Jon Alterman: It would work out better than if it were his Toshka.

Gregory Gause: Yeah, exactly. Is this going to be the Aswan Dam, or is it going to be like those innumerable steel mills that were built all over the developing world that never could get up to a level of economic efficiency to actually break even? I don't know how it's going to turn out, but obviously, this is on the agenda and these folks are thinking about it. I am very pessimistic that you're going to see an economic transition that is accompanied by a stable democratic transition.

Jon Alterman: As you look to an energy transition—in several decades, not immediately—you argue that at the end of that transition, the United States really is not going to care about the Middle East. How do you get the partnerships of Middle East governments in the energy transition? How do you get them not to undermine the energy transition? Both the Saudis and the Americans have been talking about how this meeting lays the groundwork for the next 70 years of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but it seems to me you're suggesting that there might not be much of a relationship after only 20 years.

Gregory Gause: Aside from the bilateral relationship with the United States, these leaders want to have something that their sons and grandsons will be able to rule over. If they don't find other ways to sustain their local economies after hydrocarbons, then they will have failed their families. They are monarchies. They are family businesses. They will have failed their families. I think that there is something to that, in terms of the planning that you see in the Emirates and in Saudi Arabia, most ambitiously. If they can successfully make these changes, then they become less geopolitically significant, but they are, economically, still players in the international scene to the extent that other countries like the United States, China, and European countries will want to have good relations with them. Now, those good relations might not be as security-focused, but these places will still have a role. If you're a capital exporter—which is what the UAE and Saudi Arabia are—you will have plenty of countries that are interested in having good relations with you. I just don't think the good relations will involve so many U.S. military bases. That is decades—30 or 40 years—away. Right now, in terms of immediate issues, I cannot see how we avoid escalated tensions with Iran if we do not get back to the JCPOA. That is going to focus a lot of U.S. attention in the region—and regional attention—away from economic issues and onto security issues. Security rises to the top of the agenda when that happens.

Jon Alterman: What do you think the long-term trajectory of Arab-Iran tensions are if we're looking at an energy transition? Does that mean that Iran is undermined because it gets less from energy, or does the diversification of the Iranian economy actually give them an advantage, and Iran ends up being more of a security threat in 20 years?

Gregory Gause: Iran’s population, diversity of its economy, and social cohesion are all assets. I think there is a relatively strong sense of Iranian identity and Iranian nationalism. I do not think that that necessarily makes them a threat. It is a real mistake to see money as the core of Iranian influence in the region. The relatively successful international sanctions that led to JCPOA and the surprisingly successful unilateral sanctions that the Trump administration put on Iran under maximum pressure saw the Iranians really strapped for cash during both of those periods. Did it lead to a reduction in their regional influence? It did not in the least because Iranian regional influence doesn't float on a sea of cash. It is built on these political relationships with their allies, clients, and proxies in these broken Arab countries. Whether Iran is a threat or a partner with Arab countries in the region on a 30-year timeframe as the energy transition occurs has a lot to do with the internal politics of Iran. If you have an Iran that is still governed by the current dispensation—that still feels like it has a revolutionary mission and that they are threatened by the United States—you are going to have an Iran that is willing to extend its influence into the Arab world. If you have an Iran that is more self-confident, perhaps less revolutionary in its sense of its role in the world, and feeling less threatened from the United States, then I think you could have an Iran that's more like the Shah's regime. The Shah’s regime still wanted to have some geopolitical heft in the region, but it also wasn't interfering too much in the domestic politics of other states. They were much more interested in a state-to-state relationship, rather than the development of proxies and allies that the Iranian government relies on now for its influence.

Jon Alterman: Gregory Gause, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

Gregory Gause: Always a pleasure, Jon.