US must stop viewing Saudi Arabia and others as 'vassal states', former Trump envoy says

Jason Greenblatt served as Middle East envoy from 2017-2019

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The Biden administration and Democratic politicians should stop treating Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations as “vassal states”, a Republican former envoy to the Middle East said on Friday following promises from Congress and the White House to re-evaluate or loosen ties with Riyadh.

Jason Greenblatt, who served as Middle East envoy under Donald Trump from 2017-2019, said Washington needed to be more respectful of its Gulf partners after President Joe Biden said he would “review” the US-Saudi relationship and “take action” in light of the Riyadh-led Opec+ alliance move to cut oil production last week.

The move was broadly perceived in Washington as a snub to Mr Biden, who visited Jeddah in July and asked for an increase in oil output.

Democratic members of Congress, including Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the influential Senate foreign relations committee, accused Riyadh of siding with fellow Opec+ member Russia. Mr Menendez said he would veto any future arms sales to Saudi Arabia unless the kingdom “reassesses” its position on Russia and the war in Ukraine.

“If you look at the commentary from the congressmen, and even a little bit from the White House, it's a very one-sided view,” Mr Greenblatt, who was a chief architect of the Abraham Accords, told The National.

He characterised that view of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as patronising and pushy.

“It's: 'We believe you're aligning yourself with Russia. We want you to align [with the West] in the war against Ukraine. We'll tell you what to do, you'll make your prices for your valuable assets according to what we want.'”

Mr Greenblatt continued: “That's what a vassal state would do. … That's not the relationship that we have with these countries. And it certainly shouldn't be the relationship we have with these countries, they're allies, they're friends, and we need to respect them.”

epa06830799 A handout photo made available by the US Embassy Jerusalem shows US Senior Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner (3-L) and Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt (2-L) meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2-R) at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, 22 June 2018. Others are not identified.  EPA/MATTY STERN / US EMBASSY JERUSALEM HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Senator Dick Durbin, also a Democrat, went further than his colleague Mr Menendez in attacking Saudi Arabia, stating on October 6 that “it’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without their alliance”.

Saudi Arabia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said on Wednesday that Opec+ members acted “responsibly” in their decision to cut oil production by two million barrels per day and that they were trying to “stabilise the market and achieve the interests of producers and consumers”.

Mr Greenblatt said US threats to cut arms sales to Riyadh would only hurt America's strategic interests, as it could lead Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations to look to China and Russia for weapons.

“One way or the other, the UAE and Saudi and others are going to protect their country, they're going to protect their citizens, they're going to protect their assets,” said Mr Greenblatt, who hosts The Diplomat podcast.

“And if they have to go elsewhere to do so … I'm sure it'll be regrettable, but they'll do what they have to do to protect themselves. … If we put them in that position, this very unique and special, but highly volatile region is going to spiral in a very bad direction, in my opinion.”

Mr Greenblatt recently published a book titled: In the Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East — and How to Stop Joe Biden from Unmaking It.

He said the Biden administration should do a “complete course correct when it comes to listening to the region, in particular Saudi Arabia and the UAE, understanding their concerns, standing up with them beyond mere lip service when it comes to the Houthis attacking them”.

Iran's path to a nuclear bomb

Mr Greenblatt had worked as a lawyer for Mr Trump in the private sector before joining his administration, and was serving under the Republican leader when he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, arguing that the programme was filling Tehran's coffers even as the regime was breaking the agreement in spirit and in practice.

The Biden administration has spent the last 18 months trying to negotiate a revival of the deal, but efforts have until now been fruitless.

Mr Greenblatt said it was not clear what is in the proposed new deal but said it would probably only briefly limit the time it takes for Tehran to get a nuclear bomb, instead of completely preventing it from doing so.

In the absence of a new agreement, Mr Greenblatt said the US and Europeans should coordinate a maximum sanctions campaign, coupled with a “credible, really strong military threat that concerns Iran enough that they stop what they are doing”.

“Remember, the alternative is we do this kind of deal and very shortly thereafter, Iran has nuclear weapons,” he warned.

“During that time, while they're developing nuclear weapons, Iran is going to continue to fire rockets at Israel, fire rockets and Saudi, fire rockets at the UAE. We have to recognise that”.

On the deadly protests that have been rocking Iran for nearly a month following the death of a young Kurdish woman in police custody, Mr Greenblatt said Washington should be more vocal in support of the popular uprising.

“And if it means giving up the negotiations with Iran, that's fine. I think they should try harder to give them internet service. … They should gather the world and educate people on why Iranians are fighting.”

Washington is facing a dilemma as it monitors the biggest show of popular unrest in Iran since 2009, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest against what they said was the rigged election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

If the Biden administration continues to push for a nuclear deal, critics will be likely to say the White House is failing the protesters and potentially freeing up billions of dollars in sanctions relief for the very regime repressing them.

But if it abandons the nuclear talks, Tehran could feel unconstrained in building a nuclear bomb within a matter of weeks.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Shahar Azran/Shutterstock (10265390j)
Jason Greenblatt
Jason Greenblatt, White House Special Representative for International Negotiations, Ottawa, Canada - 15 May 2019
Updated: October 15, 2022, 4:30 AM
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