Biden Offers to Turn U.S. Military Personnel Into Saudi Royal Bodyguards


The benefits of ongoing American indulgence of Riyadh is overstated.


President Joe Biden has made a habit of putting the interest of foreign governments before that of the American people. Like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

Biden took office talking of his commitment to human rights and determination to turn MbS, as the crown prince is known, into a “pariah.” Now the administration is proposing to turn the U.S. military into a modern Janissary corps, a bodyguard for the thousands of royal princes who rule over their countrymen. It is well past time to stop deferring to the KSA.

For years American policymakers justified their fixation on the Mideast on the importance of protecting Israel and importing oil. Israel, however, has become a regional military superpower, threatened more by its brutal mistreatment of Palestinians and bitter internal political struggles than outside attack. The oil market has diversified, and supplies are limited mostly by American sanctions, which could be liberalized or lifted at any time. Terrorism is a problem of endless and disastrous U.S. military intervention. Growing Chinese and Russian activity in the region is a diplomatic challenge, not a threat warranting increased military commitments. Today, as my Cato Institute colleague Jon Hoffman explained, “What Washington needs from the region on” issues traditionally central to the Saudi relationship, most notably oil, stability, and terrorism, “is quite limited and simple to achieve.”

Any support for Riyadh is difficult to justify. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s worst dictatorships. According to Freedom House, the Kingdom is more repressive than Russia, China, and Iran: “Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power.” MbS’s misrule was highlighted by the gruesome murder and dismemberment of the journalistic critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. More than five years later, the official coverup continues

Human Rights Watch observed, “Authorities conducted arrests of peaceful dissidents, public intellectuals, and human rights activists and sentenced people to decades-long prison terms for posting on social media. Abusive practices in detention centers, including torture and mistreatment, prolonged arbitrary detention, and asset confiscation without any clear legal process, remain pervasive.” Saudi-Americans also are targeted, suffering lengthy prison terms for opinions expressed while in the U.S. Despite the crown prince’s welcome social reform, activists remain at great risk. In late April 29-year-old Manahel al-Otaibi was sentenced to prison for 11 years for “terrorist offenses,” meaning publicly supporting women’s rights.

However, the president has turned his paeans to democracy into so much hypocritical cant. Who can forget the Biden–MbS fist bump and the president’s ignominious plea for an increase in oil production? Then the crown prince contemptuously dismissed Biden’s embarrassing entreaty, demonstrating who is really in charge.

Now the administration is back with an even worse idea. If MbS would be so kind as to recognize Israel, the US would sell the Saudis nuclear technology and provide a security guarantee, sealed with American money and lives. The Saudi royals are used to farming out their dirty work to others. That, in their minds, includes defending the absolute monarchy with all its privileges and delights.

The much-ballyhooed “Abraham Accords” are highlighted by recognition of Israel by three other monarchical dictatorships, Bahrain, Morocco, and United Arab Emirates, and promised recognition by Sudan’s military regime (which collapsed into civil war before doing so). Bizarrely, Washington had to purchase their assent. For instance, in Morocco’s case the U.S. endorsed Rabat’s seizure of Western Sahara and suppression of the Sahwari people, sacrificing important democratic values to advance Israel’s interests. If the accords were mutually beneficial as claimed, Washington could have promoted better regional relations without selling out American interests.

The agreements, despite their high-sounding rhetoric, are not peace treaties. Israel was not at war with any of these countries. Indeed, Jerusalem has long had clandestine intelligence relationships with several governments, including that in Riyadh. The pacts did encourage commerce on both sides, a modest benefit which accrued to them, not the U.S. Formalizing their governmental relationships was a diplomatic boon for Israel, but a negative for others, especially millions of Palestinians languishing under oppressive military occupation. 

Indeed, Washington asks nothing of the Kingdom other than to recognize Israel. Not that Riyadh respects the lives and dignity of its people. And not that the royal regime adopts a more responsible foreign policy. Before assisting Russia in avoiding allied sanctions, the Saudi government, mostly at MbS’ direction, kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, isolated (and even planned to invade) Qatar, intervened militarily on behalf of Bahrain’s repressive minority Sunni monarchy, aided jihadist insurgents in Libya and Syria, and waged war on Yemen and its people.

For his endorsement the killer prince has demanded a high price. Unstated but undoubtedly understood would be the end of criticism over the KSA for being a bottom-dweller when it comes to human rights and democracy. If the result is occasionally a citizen imprisoned for activities in the US, so be it. 

Second is a nuclear deal with few safeguards. Riyadh has threatened to build a nuclear weapon if Iran does so, dismissing American nonproliferation concerns. Hence MbS wants the technology with a minimum of oversight. So much for Washington’s quest to limit the spread of nuclear arms.

Third, and worst of all, the crown prince wants a formal alliance. The exact kind is not yet determined. Apparently, the idea is something short of security agreements with NATO, South Korea, and Japan, but which would nevertheless commit the US to the Saudi royal family’s defense. After the royal regime’s pitiful performance against Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest nation, the Kingdom wants to turn monarchical guard duty over to the Americans, who would be expected to make the Middle East safe for absolute monarchy. Could there be a worse repudiation of the American Revolution, and its rejection of even a king with a democratically elected parliament?

All this to get the KSA to formally recognize Israel, with which it long has had a cooperative security relationship, with the largely undemocratic effect of bolstering Riyadh and the other Gulf monarchies. What would the US get for underwriting the brutally authoritarian Saudi regime and the ruthlessly ethno-nationalist Netanyahu coalition? The requirement to fight even more foolish wars in the Mideast.

Unsurprisingly, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, perhaps journalism’s most fanatical and slavish MbS groupie, exulted: “The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are now putting the finishing touches on a formal alliance that could isolate Iran, curb China’s influence in the Middle East and peacefully inspire more positive change in this region than the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan ever did militarily.” Yet what does the U.S. have to do with this policy potpourri? The Kingdom long has informally allied with Israel against Tehran and could do so officially if it wished, the killer prince already has loosened onetime totalitarian social controls over his people, and China is far too important to be excluded from the Middle East. Anyway, the region is big enough for the U.S. and PRC.

So far the chief stumbling block to the deal has been the Palestinians, or, more accurately, Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. Although King Salman has always been committed to statehood for them, MbS is thought ready to leave them in history’s trashcan so long as his personal objectives are met, making him and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kindred spirits. The war in Gaza and mass killing of civilians, however, makes such an agreement difficult. Although the KSA is a dictatorship, even the crown prince hesitates acting when 96 percent of Saudis want to cut all ties with Israel, so he has demanded “irreversible steps” toward creation of a Palestinian state. The likelihood of Netanyahu agreeing to that is between zero and zero squared.

The war in Gaza has further deepened the divide. The Saudi government has just issued a statement affirming its “categorical rejection of the occupation forces’ continued blatant violations of all international resolutions calling for the cessation of these massacres and their violation of international law and international humanitarian law without deterrence, which exacerbates the humanitarian crisis and limits international peace efforts.”

Thus, according to Saudi diplomats, Biden is now pushing security guarantees without requiring recognition of Israel. Friedman imagined a workaround to Israeli intransigence: “the U.S. and the Saudis are considering finalizing the deal and taking it to Congress with the stated proviso that Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Israel the minute Israel has a government ready to meet the Saudi-U.S. terms.” However, the politics remains extremely complicated on all sides, and administration officials subsequently said no. Secretary of State Tony Blinken indicated that while agreement between Washington and Riyadh was nearly complete, necessary were “calm in Gaza” and a “credible pathway to a Palestinian state.” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also emphasized that the latter remained to achieve. 

Foreign policy is sometimes messy, but Riyadh’s security is not a vital American interest. For decades the US implicitly guaranteed the Kingdom’s security. MbS was unpleasantly surprised when President Donald Trump refused to make war on Iran after the drone attack by Yemen’s Houthis on Saudi oil facilities, which encouraged Riyadh to normalize relations with Iran. Official Washington was unhappy, but this was a welcome step toward regional peace. The Biden administration prefers the Saudi royal family put its trust in the American military. 

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The Abraham Accords have always been essentially a fraud. They were never about peace. Rather, they were always about putting Israel first, encouraging Arab governments to abandon the Palestinian cause. Now Biden is genuflecting to the killer prince as well.

If the plan goes forward—Netanyahu’s unwillingness to even fake concern for Palestinian lives remains an enormous barrier—those who join the US military will have to act as bodyguards for MbS and his fellow princes. Yet defending Saudi Arabia is not in America’s interest. President Biden took his oath of office to serve the American people, not Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Biden’s foreign policy record has little to be proud of. Subordinating American interests to those of the Saudi ruling family is certainly not a positive. The administration should stop making the Middle East safe for autocracy and disengage militarily. And Washington should stop paying other nations to make agreements that supposedly are in their own interests. Let the Kingdom and Israel make their own deals.

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Doug Bandow