In only rare instances historically do countries that enjoyed a long close relationship shift so quickly.
One of the most interesting US foreign policy developments in the last decade has been the slow shift from a policy of close cooperation with Riyadh, to one that is more critical and may become almost hostile to Saudi Arabia.
Only in rare instances, historically, do countries that enjoyed a long close relationship shift so quickly. The reasons for this US shift are complex but they are also a clear trajectory that dates from the period of the Obama administration.
Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor for President-elect Joe Biden, posted tweets critical of Saudi Arabia on Sunday, slamming the kingdom for sentencing Loujain al-Hathloul. He said that the Biden administration will “stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur.”
This universal approach to human rights issues is in line with the general perception that the US has of itself. Washington has for over a hundred years championed human rights, religious freedom and other values such as self-determination and freedom of navigation.
However, while the US has championed or paid lip service to these ideas, its actual policy on these issues has often been either neutral, or the diametric opposite.The historic relationship with Saudi Arabia is only one example where the US has generally said one thing at home but did the opposite abroad.Riyadh is no more abusive of human rights than many other countries, it was a bit of a standout because of its close relations with the US.
For instance, the kingdom has often been accused of beheading foreign workers, or ignoring abuses against them. In the 1990s and early 2000s it was also accused of funding religious extremism. Even today the accusation that “Wahhabi” teachings that have their origins in Saudi Arabia, underpin extremist ideologies in places like Chechnya, are still common, even if Riyadh’s direct connection to these ideologies have changed.For the US, this was never a major issue.
Before and after 9/11 the close relationship was generally built on the concept that Riyadh was one pillar of the US strategic system in the Middle East.
Participants take photos next to a picture of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
(photo credit: FAISAL AL NASSER/ REUTERS)