I recently returned from a meeting in Saudi Arabia, hoping to bring back some understanding of their perspective on the threat of Iran and their view of the damaged relationship with the United States. My discussions ranged from briefings with foreign ministers, diplomats, counter-terrorism experts, the state security presidency, and the Rasanah International Institute for Iranian Studies.
For many in America, the Saudi image has been unaltered by 9/11, the Arab oil embargo of 1973, Khashoggi’s murder, and the recent refusal of President Joe Biden’s request to pump more oil before the midterm elections. As Senator Bernie Sanders told ABC News, “I just believe that we should maintain a warm relationship with a dictator like that.”
On the other hand, the Saudis think America does not appreciate how important the Iranian threat is to the kingdom. They see their country in the crosshairs of the supreme leader, with Iran’s desire not only for Saudi natural resources but to replace Sunni control of Mecca and Medina, an anathema to Iranian revolutionary Shia theology.
As a senior foreign ministry official told me, “We are Iran’s number one target.” They see the Islamic Republic of Iran as “a revolution, not a country. When Iranians are confronted, they just lie and deny it.
The Saudis see a double standard. The continued preoccupation of the US with the murder of the journalist Khashoggi, who deservedly gave a black eye to the Saudi government, does not compete with the magnitude of Iran’s participation in the Syrian genocide in which hundreds of thousands were killed. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operates directly under the control of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But there was no American call to make Iran’s supreme leader a pariah.
The Saudis cannot understand how the Iranian regime that calls “Death to America” is treated by our nuclear negotiators in Vienna with so much respect. At the same time, the Saudi government was publicly criticized, although, in the eyes of the Saudis, they did not show any general hostility towards America or its people. The Saudis see Iran’s expansionism destroying Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, not provoking the anger of the United States.
From the Saudi perspective, they see the American offer of trillion dollar sanctions to get rid of the bad nuclear deal as an existential threat to their kingdom. According to Middle East expert Khaled Abu Toemeh, “The Saudis and their allies in the Gulf seem to be wondering why Biden is threatening them with ‘consequences’ just to protect themselves from being wiped out soon by Iran.”
In my meetings, one recurring issue seems to bother the Saudis more than anything else, the lack of respect for the proud and independent Saudi people. Whether expressed as a statement of American anger or condescension, this attitude is perceived by the Saudis as representing a patron-to-client relationship, which seriously offends their cultural sensibilities.
They see the American demand to choose the United States over China and Russia as unrealistic, because China is the most important trading partner, and Russia is a member of OPEC +. When they repeat the Saudi talking points that they are only one of the twenty-three countries in OPEC +, I remind them that in the past, they unilaterally changed oil production to help American interests, overruling OPEC countries. They have no response to that. The Saudis need to show some flexibility because they know that American weapons systems need to be maintained and resupplied, and they cannot quickly turn to China.
What is not appreciated in the United States is the profound difference in how the monarchy has changed the orthodox attitude of the clergy to be more tolerant and punishing radicalization. The Saudi secretary general of the Muslim World League visited a concentration camp with the American Jewish Committee, a symbolic act that should not be underestimated. This is a welcome change after Saudi proselytizing and funding in the twentieth century, which is considered responsible for the radicalization of the Islamic community around the world.
As the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Clifford May, said, “Mohammed bin Salman has some legitimate complaints.” After Biden vowed to make MBS a pariah and drop the designation of the Iran-backed Houthis as terrorists, the Saudis questioned America’s commitment to the relationship. However, they are equally aggrieved that President Donald Trump ignored the Iranian attack on their oil facilities and removed the US Patriot missiles from their defense system.
Recriminations are not the way forward for American or Saudi interests. America should focus on supporting the will of the Iranian people for regime change while repairing our important relationship with the Saudis for the benefit of our national security.
Dr. Mandel is the Director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and his foreign policy aides. He is the Senior Security Editor for the Jerusalem Report. He is a regular contributor to The Hill and the Jerusalem Post.