In late 1993, the State Department sent me to Riyadh for a temporary assignment as U.S. Charge d’affaires to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This followed a period of three years as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, during which our relations with Saudi Arabia was one of my major preoccupations. While my time in Riyadh was brief, it happened to coincide with a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in the Saudi capital as well as the inaugural meeting of the Shura Council, a high level advisory body of distinguished Saudi citizens., At other times, I had the honor of being present at meetings with several Saudi monarchs and senior princes, including Salman bin Abdulaziz, now King Salman, when he was the Governor of Riyadh. Those experiences impressed me with the importance of Saudi Arabia’s regional leadership and the potential for its domestic political evolution.
Beginning in the closing years of World War II, the United States government became more actively involved in the Middle East. The meeting of President Roosevelt with Saudi King Abdulaziz aboard a U.S. naval vessel in February 1945 symbolized both the U.S. strategic interest and the high level personal touch that Saudi leaders have come to expect. Ever since, it has been important for the United States to have extensive relations with Saudi Arabia. For U.S. leaders, however, this does not mean that a close personal relationship between the U.S. President and the King of Saudi Arabia is essential. As with other countries important to U.S. interests in the Middle East – Israel, Egypt, and Turkey come to mind – the U.S. has learned how to work with governments during periods when they have leaders to whom our president is not close.
The important thing is that the two peoples share mechanisms through which all of their varied interests -- security, economic, cultural and educational -– can be addressed. Ninety nine percent or more of the official relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States normally take place below the summit level. We have very complex relationships with very substantial embassies in both capitals. Saudi Arabia has long had a very active and well staffed embassy in Washington, often with a member of the ruling family as ambassador. The U.S. has a large diplomatic mission in Riyadh with a professional career diplomat in charge. Both governments maintain constituent posts in other cities to help conduct the complex business and consular relations between Saudis and Americans.
We also have a wide range of active relationships between our senior military officers and the senior military personnel of Saudi Arabia. In addition, all kinds of very important commercial and economic relations take place in diverse venues within the frameworks of relevant legal systems. Complexity and mutual respect are hallmarks of ties that have grown in importance for nearly a century since they began in small ways. Established institutions have outlasted personalities.
If I were an advisor to President Biden, I would acknowledge that a role for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is inescapable given the realities of Saudi domestic politics. The meeting that recently took place when President Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia was very controversial here. Some of the media coverage was dominated by much ado about a fist bump. The reality, however, is that it enabled Biden to have meetings with a number of key Arab leaders and to advance U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia in a businesslike manner.
Yes, Joe Biden and Mohmmed bin Salman met face to face, but they did not meet in a private, tete a tete format. Biden showed his respect for royal protocol by meeting with King Salman and not making a fuss about the presence of the Crown Prince. In the much longer, substantive meeting, both leaders were flanked by top advisors. In the case of Biden, there were nearly a dozen on his side of the big table, led by Secretary of State Blinken. This was nothing like what took place between former President Trump and Vladimir Putin at Helsinki.
Like most U.S. presidents, Biden will usually conduct our relations with foreign leaders through diplomatic institutions led by trusted subordinates. If the need arises, he may meet again with Mohammed bin Salman. For any future meetings between these two leaders, I think Biden will be wise to have the company of senior advisors like Blinken, Secretary of Defense Austin, NSC Advisor Sullivan and so on, depending on subject matter. There needs to be a clear understanding that we want a productive relationship with Saudi Arabia that serves the national interests of both sides. We do not, however, aspire to buddy-buddy meetings that serve personal ambitions more than the broad relationship between our two countries.
The people of Saudi Arabia need to know that the four years preceding the Biden Administration were not typical for the United States. We briefly had a de facto ruling family in the United States with President Trump, his older children and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. That was not normal for the United States. A broad based and durable relationship with Saudi Arabia has been very important to the United States for the better part of a century. We will continue to work to that end, whether or not the American people happen to like particular members of the Saudi ruling family.
Given their different historical experiences, relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States will always be a work in progress. Getting it right will require persistent effort and sensitivity by political leaders, diplomats, military officers and leaders in fields like business and higher education. The result can be well worth the effort.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Mack is a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council Middle East program, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs and former US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.