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Biden’s Saudi Visit Is A Return To The Norm, Not A ‘Reorientation’ – OpEd

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By Faisal J. Abbas

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US President Biden Joe Biden arrives in Saudi Arabia this week at the invitation of King Salman. In Jeddah on Friday he will meet the king and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and attend an extraordinary meeting of the six GCC states plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

While it is obvious here in the Kingdom why this visit is of great mutual importance, some of the president’s critics may not be as clear eyed as he or his team. Perhaps that is why Biden wrote a carefully worded column published in The Washington Post last week, entitled “Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia,” in which he made clear that as US president his aim was never to “rupture” but to “reorient” the relationship between our two countries.

The column’s tone was far more balanced, eloquent and reflective of Biden’s long career as a seasoned politician than some of his previous rhetoric — for example, his election campaign vow to turn Saudi Arabia into “a pariah.” Such a statement is why the legendary former Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, used to describe US election periods as the “silly season,” and there is no need to dwell on it. After all, who in their right mind would want to rupture a strategic relationship with a country of the size and importance of Saudi Arabia — the cradle of Islam, home to the holy sites of 2 billion people and the world’s most significant oil producing state?

However, it is the “reorient” part of Biden’s column with which I must respectfully disagree. He argues that he is coming to Jeddah because the Kingdom has helped restore Gulf unity, supported the truce in Yemen, is working to stabilize oil markets, and has had an impact in keeping America strong and secure. But none of that is a “reorientation” — it is the norm: indeed, it is the very basis of our bilateral relationship. You could add to it cooperation to end the Soviet invasion of Afganistan, fighting side by side to liberate Kuwait, continued cooperation to combat terrorism, collaboration in space exploration, and the formation of joint businesses to create hundreds of thousands of jobs for both Saudis and Americans.

In fact, any deviation from this norm has been — regrettably — by the US. On Yemen, for example, the current administration’s initial policy was to disengage, delist the Iran-backed Houthis as terrorists and withdraw Patriot missile batteries from the Kingdom while Saudi civilians and oil infrastructure were being attacked — civilians, let us not forget, in a country that Biden in his own column describes as a “strategic partner for 80 years,” and oil facilities that were targeted at a time when global energy prices were at an all time high.

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However, since his administration began to engage more, to accept the facts, and to place blame where it belongs, we have together managed to achieve a truce in Yemen that has been the longest lasting so far. One can only hope for more progress with the help of Washington, and a final resolution for a war that everyone wants to end sooner rather than later.

I must also respectfully disagree with the suggestion that my country had previously enjoyed a “blank-check policy,” which the current US administration has reversed. If this is intended to mean that the Kingdom was given a pass on human rights under any previous administration, then it is simply untrue. As has been clearly documented in reports published by the State Department and other US agencies, such topics have always been discussed. Criticism was accepted when it was legitimate, and dismissed when it was not.

Nor has the record always been negative. On numerous occasions, our efforts and policies have received welcome praise — most recently from Deborah Lipstadt, Biden’s own envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. On a visit to Riyadh, including our headquarters at Arab News, she had only warm words for the social and religious reforms spearheaded by the crown prince.

No country is without its faults — a truism that applies equally to the US, where growing racial and political divisions, police brutality, and the continued existence of the Guantanamo prison camp are all rather alarming to us as Arabs who expect better from a country as great as America.

I, for one, am excited to see what emerges from the meetings on Friday. I am even more excited to see what the next 80 years of Saudi-US relations can achieve. At a time of great opportunity — such as the religious, economic and social reforms in my country — as well as daunting global political, security, health and nutrition challenges, the Riyadh-Washington relationship is as important as ever for the peace, stability and prosperity of the whole planet.

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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