Nadim Koteich

America and Mohammed bin Salman

There has been a seachange in Mohammed bin Salman’s stance on the administration of President Joe Biden since the interview he gave to The Atlantic 16 months ago, which now seems a long way away from his recent Fox News interview.

When the magazine asked him what he thought of Biden’s opinion of him, the Prince responded with his typical confidence and political craftsmanship. “Simply, I do not care.” Suggesting that alienating Saudi Arabia would undermine Biden’s position, he added: “It's up to him to think about the interests of America.”

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. In July 2022, Biden visited the Kingdom, and too many senior members of his administration to count have made visits since then. Over the course of these visits, a shared and exciting political agenda between the two countries crystallized, the most prominent of which is their talks for a comprehensive peace agreement.

In his more recent interview, regarding Saudi-American relations and President Joe Biden's administration, Prince Mohammed said: "The only thing that does not change in politics is change itself. So you always change your policies to serve the interests of your nation. Today, we are doing great work with President Biden; we are working on a great network that we are building between India, the Kingdom, and Europe."

The positive climate reflected in these precise statements stems from the metamorphosis of the relationship between the countries. This change was primarily precipitated by a shift in the US stance on the Kingdom. The American turnaround clearly demonstrates that the relationship with Riyadh that had been envisioned by Biden and his team, on the campaign trail and in the White House, had overlooked the vast and critical interests both countries share. Indeed, his team had initially opted for a liberal ideological position that aligned with the massive “woke” wave sweeping through the Democratic Party and its young base.

Prior to his 2022 trip to the Kingdom, however, Biden wrote a long piece for the Washington Post. Under the headline "Why I’m Going To Visit Saudi Arabia," Biden laid out the practical considerations that compelled him to improve relations between the two countries. He mentioned the need to fortify Washington's position in its face-off with China and develop mechanisms to avert erratic surges in oil prices, as well as alluding to his aspiration for a breakthrough that could give rise to a comprehensive peace deal.

This shift in the US position under Biden on Saudi Arabia is emblematic of the chaos we have become accustomed to seeing in American foreign policy in the Middle East, which has long been floundering because it arbitrarily oscillates from extreme idealism to stark realism.

In his recently published book, "The Grand Delusion," the American historian and diplomat Steven Simon provides a comprehensive narrative of the US’s failure to achieve any of its objectives. He attributes this failure to a basic flaw, a delusion that the US has the capacity to impose grand notions that it believes in on a political and social landscape that does not align with Washington's intentions or pursuits.
The author presents the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a glaring illustration of this grand delusion. In the aftermath of 9/11, the administration of President George W. Bush, reinforced by a sense of moral clarity, believed that it could not only oust Saddam Hussein but also turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. This theory's proponents gravely underestimated the implications of the intricate ethnic and religious milieu of Iraqi society, as well as the reactions of its neighbors to having their strategic interests undermined.

Many US presidents have fallen for the same illusion that defined the first half of President Biden's presidential term, believing that what they saw as good intentions and moral idealism could, in themselves, allow for overcoming material obstacles. This conviction often stems from an overestimation of America's military, economic, and various other capacities.

American administrations' disregard for the interests of other influential players might be the most dangerous reason for this "grand delusion" that plays a prominent role in shaping the US’s Middle East policy, be it on questions of war and peace, a complex economic issue, or any other strategic matter. Neither the fate of countries, political groups, nor individuals are static targets that can be molded by US policy. They are dynamic and vibrant entities that operate in accordance with their own vested interests, beliefs, and agendas.

The interview with Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicates a radical shift, but not in what is happening in Saudi Arabia. Rather, it is Washington that has shifted, presenting another example of the harmful ramifications of this “grand delusion," and it shows that delays in recognizing and dealing with reality are a structural problem in US foreign policy.

Of course, it is unlikely that change in the White House's stance is anything more than an adaptation to political contingencies. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that this U-turn is indicative of a structural reform of US foreign policy, which is often driven by immediate and momentary concerns than it is by comprehensive long-term strategies.

Made on this basis, Prince Mohammed’s statements regarding Saudi Arabia's relations with China, Russia, India, as well as the US, reflect his sharp strategic awareness. They show that he prefers to diversify his alliances and avoid total assimilation into a particular camp and alliance. He is betting on this American shift engendering positive outcomes in the short or medium term, but he has no illusions about a more long-term border shift in US foreign policy.

So long as US foreign policy is not profoundly restructured, regional actors like Prince Mohammed bin Salman will remain weary. Even as they engage positively with Washington to safeguard their interests, they will always remain mindful that the US could revert back to taking hostile positions and policies. This state of affairs is a challenge that every decision-maker in the Middle East has to grapple with. At the same time, though, it undermines trust in the US more broadly, as well as the prospects of the US reclaiming its leading role in the Middle East.