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Three years ago, Joe Biden slammed the Saudi government. But now, amid a global oil crisis and shifting geopolitics in the region, the President will soon fly to Jeddah to meet MBS. How did the Kingdom rehabilitate itself – and why was it all so expected?

While Saudi Arabia is ruled by his father, Mohammad bin Salman – the crown prince who will soon meet U.S. President Joe Biden in Jeddah – is seen as the de facto leader of a country that has seen both monumental reform and violent repression in recent years.Illustration by illustration by The Globe and Mail (photo: Marcos Brindicci/Reuters)

Dennis Horak was Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2015 to 2018, when the Saudi government expelled him from the country as a persona non grata. He was also head of mission in Iran from 2009 to 2012.

One year before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Joe Biden stood on a debate stage in Atlanta looking to give his lacklustre primary campaign a boost. The Democrats’ field was still crowded then, and national polling at the time suggested that Mr. Biden was lagging behind front-runners Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

But over the course of the debate, the question of Saudi Arabia arose. The brutal murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi a year earlier had shocked the world; the humanitarian nightmare in Yemen was worsening daily, and American complicity in support of the war had become a political issue in Congress and in the wider political landscape. Many Americans were openly questioning Washington’s traditional unconditional support for the Saudi monarchy.

Activists dressed as Donald Trump and the Saudi Crown Prince protest in Washington in 2018.Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Unsurprisingly, then-president Donald Trump swam against this tide; his fawning embrace of the oil-rich nation’s royals during his 2017 visit – his first overseas trip as president, breaking precedent – set the tone. The impunity Mr. Trump seemed to be granting the repressive Saudi government made it an easy target for the 10 Democrats gathered on the Atlanta stage that day, but especially for Mr. Biden.

Having been part of former president Barack Obama’s administration, which had a cooler relationship with the Saudis than most of its predecessors but had nonetheless backed Riyadh’s role in Yemen’s brutal civil war, candidate Biden seized a unique opportunity to distance himself from the position of the Trump White House – and step back from the line taken by the administration in which he had served as vice-president.

After promising that he wouldn’t “sell more weapons” to the Saudis, Mr. Biden pledged that if elected, he would “make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” He continued: “There’s very little social redeeming value … in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

While his main opponents shared this disdain for the Saudis, Mr. Biden’s comments drew headlines. Here was a potential U.S. president and former vice-president promising to undo decades of U.S. policy in the Gulf region, by treating a key traditional partner as a “pariah.”

Nearly three years later, Mr. Biden is preparing to travel there as U.S. President to meet with the very same “current government in Saudi Arabia” he had so explicitly denounced.

The mid-July trip has earned him widespread criticism, including from human-rights groups and his own congressional allies, and the concerns raised in Atlanta that November night remain salient today.

Despite a UN-brokered truce announced in March and extended in April, the civil war in Yemen is not over. Since it started in 2015, the war has killed thousands, displaced millions and led to widespread famine. The issues that drew the Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition to the side of the Yemeni government and the Iranians behind the rebel Houthis – with destructive consequences for both sides – remain unresolved. Sustainable peace in Yemen will be a tall order.

Turkish writer Hatice Cengiz stands beside a portrait of Mr. Khashoggi, her fiancée, in Washington in 2021.NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

The fallout from Mr. Khashoggi’s slaying also remains challenging for Mr. Biden’s administration.

In February, 2021, Mr. Biden released a U.S. intelligence report that alleged the Washington Post journalist was killed in Turkey by a hit team whose actions were approved by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, who is seen as its de facto ruler.

While the Saudis did arrest a number of those directly involved, they have denied any official sanction of the murder. And after the release of the report, the U.S. imposed sanctions on many Saudis thought to have played a role in the killing – but not MBS. Mr. Biden’s rehabilitation visit, critics charge, effectively allows the Saudis to literally get away with murder.

White House officials have tried to deflect criticism by highlighting the fact that Mr. Biden is only attending a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a summit that will be attended by representatives from Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and to which other key regional leaders from Egypt, Jordan and Iraq have also been invited.

But when pressed on whether the President would be meeting directly with the Crown Prince, the administration dissembled, asserting that Mr. Biden would be meeting with King Salman’s “leadership team.” Given MBS’s central role in Saudi affairs, though, he is the “leadership team”; a meeting between the two is inevitable.

Canada knows this game well, having tried a similar play in 2016, when then-foreign minister Stéphane Dion visited Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to attend the Canada-GCC Forum. As political cover, it didn’t work for us then, and it won’t work for the Americans now.

Protesters rally at the Saudi embassy in Washington this past June 15.Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Mr. Biden’s trip, then, signals a clear end to Saudi Arabia’s short-lived “pariah” period.

This business-as-usual dynamic in the U.S.-Saudi relationship returns at a time when Riyadh goes to great pains to burnish the country’s international image as a “normal,” prosperous and accepted international partner.

Some of the world’s leading professional golfers have jumped to the new Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf league, attracted by contracts that reportedly pay in excess of US$150-million annually.

Pop stars such as Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez have held concerts in the kingdom, and just last year, Jeddah hosted its first Formula 1 Grand Prix race.

It would be easy to conclude that the Biden administration has also been seduced by the lure of Saudi Arabia’s resurgent oil wealth and power, amid a postpandemic spike in global energy demand and supply pressures after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the issues at play are more complex.

Mr. Biden’s reversal brings into sharp relief a fundamental conundrum that most Western countries face in figuring out how to deal with countries such as Saudi Arabia: how to balance the safeguarding of values and principles with the promotion of national interests.

Pilgrims visit Mount Al-Noor in Mecca, Islam's holy city, on July 4 ahead of the annual hajj. Saudi Arabia expects the pilgrimage to return to its usual scale after two years of COVID-19-related restrictions on attendance.CHRISTINA ASSI/AFP via Getty Images

Hajj rites centre on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the building inside it, the Ka’aba, shown from the air on July 4. Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Inside the mosque, robots sanitize the air, part of the health precautions for the one million visitors expected this year. Amr Nabil/The Associated Press

For Canada, the “values versus interests” dilemma challenged us most vividly in connection with the $15-billion sale of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia in 2014 under former prime minister Stephen Harper. Touted as the single largest export contract in Canadian history, the deal was lauded and condemned in equal measure at the time. Critics highlighted Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human-rights record and, later, the war in Yemen; they have since urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to scrap the deal. After Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, the charge that Canada had sold its principles or values for lucrative jobs at home only intensified.

Supporters of the deal have justified it by pointing to Canada’s continuing security partnership with Saudi Arabia, our shared strategic objectives including containing Iran, and, of course, the commercial benefits of the sale, which brought more than 3,000 well-paid jobs to London, Ont. As pressure grew, defenders also cited the reputational and financial risk of cancelling the deal. That debate has continued – as have the LAV deliveries.

The “values/interests” challenge, however, is not a straightforward calculation of good versus greed. The two are not mutually exclusive; it is not usually a binary choice. In fact, for practitioners, it would be much easier if it was, especially since it’s not going to get any easier going forward. In an age of growing authoritarianism globally, limiting our interactions to an ever-shrinking cadre of like-minded partners is unrealistic.

An effective foreign policy requires compromises. It’s about making the best choices from many imperfect or even bad options. It’s about dealing with friends and foes – maybe even especially foes. It must be adaptable to changing times and circumstances. Countries need to engage with those who share our values and those who don’t. Pragmatic, interest-driven engagement can lead to outcomes that reflect or advance our values. We need to be present in places where our principles are challenged so that we can try and influence government behaviour, or at least improve the lives of the people we profess to care so much about.

Chrystia Freeland, then the foreign affairs minister, speaks in Ottawa in 2018.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A major incident in Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia serves as a case study. In 2018, then-foreign minister Chrystia Freeland sent a relatively innocuous tweet calling for the “immediate” release of women’s-rights activists who had been recently detained. While Ms. Freeland’s use of the term “immediate” was an escalation of the kind of language we typically employed, the use of social media to press human-rights issues was routine.

It shouldn’t have unleashed the firestorm that it did in Riyadh: The government recalled its ambassador to Canada, expelled me, and enacted other restrictive measures, including ending Canada’s eligibility for Saudi scholarship students, which then numbered around 10,000.

Canada had taken a principled stand, but it came with a cost. The thousands of Saudis who came to Canada annually to study often went back as agents of change and moderation. One graduate from Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University, for example, returned home to launch a company aimed specifically at supporting Saudi women to enter the country’s work force, and he helped improve the lives of thousands of them.

His success advanced our values more than any number of tweets could ever hope to, and it was only possible because we were engaged with the kingdom. Given the difficulties in the bilateral relationship now, will anyone be able to follow in the inspiring footsteps of that Saint Mary’s grad?

Realistically, isolating Saudi Arabia until the country or MBS was held accountable was never sustainable for the West. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but what would that even look like in real terms? The Saudis were never going to let the international community dictate who would lead their country – MBS enjoys immense domestic popularity – and the kingdom is too important an international and regional player to try and keep in a box for long.

A June trip by MBS to Turkey was illustrative of this reality. The physical embrace the Crown Prince received from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been among the most vocal world leaders in demanding Saudi accountability for the murder that took place on Turkish soil, spoke volumes. Here was, quite literally, a return to the scene of the crime by the highest-profile person most closely linked to it. Insofar as Saudi Arabia was ever out there, that visit signalled the country’s and, more to the point, MBS’s emergence from the cold.

Skyrocketing oil prices and the inflationary spiral they are exacerbating have certainly made the kingdom’s “rehabilitation” all the more necessary. Saudi Arabia’s traditional role as the key oil-exporting swing producer cannot be wished away, even if the excess capacity they could bring online wouldn’t, on its own, solve the world’s supply problems.

But it is not just about the economy. Saudi Arabia is an important player in the volatile Middle East, and a stable peace there would serve not only the international community’s collective geostrategic interests, but our moral imperatives as well. Like it or not, the road to helping resolve some of the region’s most intractable problems runs through Riyadh. Continuing to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah would do nothing to advance our priorities or our principles in addressing these challenges. On the contrary, it would likely heighten the risk of bad choices or push them into the arms of bad actors such as China and Russia, which do not share our values or interests.

Ola Flimban works on a car at the Petromin Express garage in Jeddah this past May. Four years earlier, Saudi women weren’t allowed to drive; now they work alongside men here, and at other businesses that are part of a nationwide push to get more women in the work force.FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

Afnan Almarglani, the first Saudi woman to be certified as an autocross instructor, works with her students in Riyadh. In her day job, she is a biomedical engineer with the Saudi health ministry. Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
A 26-year-old physician in Riyadh sports a short haircut known in Saudi Arabia as a ‘boy,’ an increasingly common fashion trend now that women are no longer required to wear hijabs. Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

And then there’s this inconvenient, complicated reality: Shrinking political space and a rise in arbitrary detentions of both conservative and liberal “opponents” in Saudi Arabia – real, imagined or manufactured – are coming at a time when the country is also in the midst of truly revolutionary social and economic reform.

The country’s Vision 2030 plan and other related societal transformations have created unprecedented opportunities for women, even beyond the much-publicized right to drive in 2018. Among its other key features is an overhaul of the education system, making it less religion-centric and more focused on academics, in line with the broader effort to reduce the role and influence of the conservative religious establishment in Saudi life and governance.

Even the opening-up of the seemingly frivolous entertainment sphere to international pop stars, car races and Western movies has been key in pushing the religious establishment to the side. At the start of this reform process in 2016, I asked the head of the Saudis’ Entertainment Authority about some well-publicized religious objections to gender mixing at one of the first entertainment events the government allowed. He told me: “If they don’t like it, they don’t have to come.” That may sound simple, but for a society accustomed to the near-veto power held by its clerical class, it was revolutionary.

Even though the scope of the program falls far short in some key areas, particularly on political reform, the changes being implemented are very much in line with what Western countries have long pressed the Saudis to undertake. Western countries can help shape – and perhaps broaden – these reform efforts by continuing to engage Saudi leadership and society.

Ironically, the architect of both the reforms and the heightened repression is MBS. He speaks openly of wanting to make Saudi Arabia a “normal country” – by which he means less insular, less theocratic – while also allegedly ordering the murder of a journalist abroad and detaining activists whose only “crimes” were pushing publicly for the kinds of reforms he himself has implemented.

He is the contradiction at the very heart of Saudi Arabia’s contradiction, but one that we’re going to have to get used to, since MBS will in all probability be the next king of Saudi Arabia and, at just 36, will likely reign for decades. Getting and keeping Saudi Arabia on the right path is in our interest; making life better for Saudis is consistent with our values.

That is the context facing Mr. Biden as he prepares to travel to Jeddah. Finding the balance between pragmatism and principle – talking about human rights and oil – can’t happen through isolation. The diplomatic formula is simple: Engagement gives you access, and access provides an opportunity for influence.

It may not be as emotionally satisfying as standing in a televised debate and calling an unpopular geostrategic player a “pariah” in front of millions of Americans – but if we are looking for results that meet our interests and values, it’s the best way forward.

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