U.S. Marine Corps Gen Frank McKenzie, CDR, U.S. Central Command sits with Saudi Arabian Maj. Gen. Khalid bin Abdullah AlShablan, commander, Prince Sultan Air Base, during a visit to Prince Sultan Air Base, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, July 9, 2020.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen Frank McKenzie, CDR, U.S. Central Command sits with Saudi Arabian Maj. Gen. Khalid bin Abdullah AlShablan, commander, Prince Sultan Air Base, during a visit to Prince Sultan Air Base, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, July 9, 2020. U.S. Air Force Photo by Capt. Tisha Yates

For Biden, Tough Talk on Saudi Arabia Meets Reality

‘We don't yet know exactly’ how Biden will change things, says CENTCOM’s Gen. McKenzie.

AL UDEID AIR FORCE BASE, Qatar — Even as the Biden administration has sought to talk tough on Saudi Arabia over its human rights abuses, it has quietly continued the workaday relations needed to preserve the strategic relationship with a Gulf ally that military planners see as critical to the U.S. ability to defend against Iran in the region.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden vowed a dramatic reset of relations with Saudi Arabia. He promised to treat Riyadh like “the pariah that they are” and force its leaders to “pay the price” for the killing of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi and the killing of civilians in its campaign in Yemen.

Since entering office on Jan. 20, Biden’s administration has placed a pause on arms sales to the Kingdom, including precision munitions that critics say have been abused in Yemen. 

But officials said many of the deals were ultimately likely to go forward. And on the Saudi peninsula, the U.S. military is still focused on helping Riyadh protect its territory from attacks and on building the American military’s ability to fight Iran. A recent statement from State Department spokesman Ned Price condemning a militant attack on Riyadh vowed that the United States “will also help our partner Saudi Arabia defend against attacks on its territory.”

“My domain is the mil-to-mil relationship. We work to preserve that, regardless of what's happening at the policy level,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, said in an interview with Defense One last week. “The military component serves policy, so we're going to be completely responsive to whatever policy is set here.”

But, McKenzie said, “we don't yet know exactly” how the Biden administration’s policy approach to Riyadh will shake out. “I think the Biden team is going to do an evaluation there. That won't happen overnight. It'll take a short period of time to do it.”

For some current and former officials with experience in the region, the quiet continuation of the broader security relationship is a nod both to Riyadh’s strategic importance to the United States and to the thorniness of the policy disputes between the two nations. 

The Saudi campaign in Yemen in particular presents a delicate challenge for the new administration. Riyadh has been widely condemned for its indiscriminate killing of civilians in its prosecution of the conflict and Congress has long put pressure on the federal government to curtail both direct and indirect support to the campaign, in the form of security assistance and arms sales. Biden during the Democratic primary promised to end “end the sale of materiel to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children.”

But while curtailing the sale of precision munitions to the Saudis might prevent some civilian deaths in the short term, it wouldn’t resolve the conflict in Yemen, which has spiraled into an unprecedented humanitarian disaster, officials suggest. 

McKenzie and others familiar with the thinking in Riyadh say that Saudi Arabia is keen to end the conflict — the stated goal of the United States — but the Houthi rebels, backed in part by Iran, aren’t ready to deal. That’s partially because they are enjoying a certain “momentum” on the battlefield, McKenzie said, and are “gaining ground in the North.” 

“It's hard to know their intentions,” McKenzie said. “Sometimes when you're having success like that, you always feel like you've got to get a little bit more before you negotiate. And that's very dangerous because hubris, pride can be an upsetting element in these kinds of negotiations.”

Increasingly, the Houthis and other Iran-aligned militant groups in the region have been able to launch direct attacks on Riyadh and other strategic targets in Saudi Arabia. The Houthis launched a missile and drone attack on key targets in Riyadh in June 2020; In a 2019 attack on a Saudi oil refinery, Tehran paired cruise missiles with kamikaze drones to temporarily cut the nation’s oil production in half. 

In the meantime, the United States provides very little direct support to the campaign itself. 

“I think our assistance for them is more specifically focused on the defense of Saudi Arabia,” McKenzie said. “Those are the things that I track most closely, is what we do to help them defend Saudi itself, from ballistic missile or [unmanned aerial system] attacks.”

Within government, officials are divided over the practical outcome if the United States were to drastically curtail arms sales to Saudi. Some believe Riyadh would turn to U.S. competitors, like Russia and China; others say that warning is a canard that has been overused. 

“That's an argument that’s always made. It was made when I was there,” said Amb. Joseph Westphal, who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under former President Barack Obama. “I just don't see the Saudis looking at that as necessarily a viable option.”

Progressive analysts say Biden doesn’t have to completely cut the sale of precision munitions to the Saudis in order to make a difference in the handling of the campaign in Yemen, but instead could place and then enforce conditions on their use — as it might for the entire swath of security assistance that the United States provides to Riyadh. 

“They are likely to look at security cooperation differently, less transactionally, and as just one part of the broader bilateral relationship,” said Elisa Catalano Ewers, a Middle East analyst at the Center for New American Security. “That is the point at which the values-based arguments will come in — for example, are we being transparent about the sophisticated arms that we sell to foreign governments, and thinking through the second and third order effects of those sales? Are we holding partners accountable to the parameters and conditions we set forth? Do we have concerns about their ability to abide by end-use requirements, and how will we address those concerns?”

“All of the wonky nerdy stuff about arms sales that people never focus on, I think people are going to care about those things,” she said.

The Biden administration should and will push for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, former officials said. But if the Houthis refuse to come to the table — as current and former officials say has so far been the case — then the Biden administration may find it more difficult to back away from its defense of Riyadh. Not only is Saudi Arabia a counterweight to Iranian influence in the region and an important player in the global oil market, its geographic position gives it critical strategic value.

“Strategically, this is a country that sits between two major forces of the future, Africa and Asia,” said Westphal. “We need to be engaged in that in a significant way — we cannot be absent or will be out of the picture for natural resources, for critical resources that we need for technology, as well as strategic considerations.”

But how will Biden square that level of nuanced engagement with his campaign politics?

“From my vantage point, I don't think it's as narrow as people think,” Westphal said. “You have to kind of put behind what was said during your campaign. That's in the heat of a campaign. Now, he's president he's got a much bigger world map to consider.”