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U.S.-Saudi relations have been fraught, but that's been changing

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

U.S.-Saudi ties have been fraught since U.S. intelligence found that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation that ended up killing Saudi American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Human rights organizations have called out the kingdom's record of mass executions and jailing critics. But President Biden visited Saudi Arabia last year, and this week he's dispatched his top diplomat, Antony Blinken, to steady the relationship. Meanwhile, Iran reopened its embassy in Riyadh in a step toward normalizing relations between two regional powers vying for supremacy. For more on the Saudi perspective on all of this, I spoke earlier with Fahad Nazer, spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C.

FAHAD NAZER: Much like President Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia last July, I think that Secretary Blinken's visit is a testament to the strength and the importance of bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States. This long-standing partnership has withstood the test of time.

FADEL: I want to pivot for a moment to Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been on opposite sides of many regional tensions or regional conflicts. But Iran reopened its embassy in Saudi Arabia. How does this new era look between Saudi Arabia and Iran going forward?

FADEL: Over the past two years, Saudi officials have had several rounds of talks with Iranian officials that did culminate in an agreement in Beijing in China back in March, where we did agree to restore diplomatic relations with Iran and reopen our embassies. We're certainly hopeful that this does represent a new chapter in our relations with Iran.

FADEL: Now, Iran, a Shia Muslim-majority nation, and Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim-majority nation, have long been on opposite sides of conflict in the region. There's the Saudi-led war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, where Saudi-led airstrike campaigns have killed thousands of civilians. There's Syria, where Iran supported President Bashar al-Assad as he repressed dissent, and Saudi Arabia backed his opponents in a civil war that's killed hundreds of thousands. Now Assad was welcomed back to the Arab League, an alliance of Arab nations, as Saudi Arabia and allies resumed diplomatic ties. Meanwhile, Saudi's Shia Muslim minority have faced persecution, mass arrests and executions. I asked how restoring relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia might change any of this.

NAZER: We adhere to a set of principles that have allowed us to enjoy good, if not excellent, relations with the overwhelming majority of countries around the regions. We are supporting the United Nations in its effort to restore peace and stability in Yemen. We're engaged with all the relevant parties there on the ground to advance a comprehensive political resolution. We are the top provider of humanitarian assistance. As of last count, we've provided $17 billion in humanitarian aid and for reconstruction projects in Yemen. And in Sudan, we are trying to advance a political resolution. We are certainly encouraging the two sides to sit down at the table and to try to resolve their differences. We've hosted talks in Jeddah that were co-sponsored with the United States. We are promoting a political resolution to the conflict that protects and preserves serious sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity. We also want to make sure that humanitarian aid gets to the people who need it in Syria and that the millions of refugees who have left Syria or have been internally displaced can go back safely.

FADEL: Although Saudi's role in Yemen would be very different than its role in Sudan and Syria, for example, since it was directly involved in the war in Yemen. But I want to talk about the unresolved concerns that Saudi has when it comes to Iran, that the U.S. shares - Iran's nuclear program as well as Tehran's drones and missiles, which the U.S. says were behind a major attack on Saudi oil facilities in 2019. How do you resolve those concerns now?

NAZER: In many ways, the agreement in Beijing - it's the beginning of an ongoing conversation. It does not resolve all of our differences with Iran. And we have certainly made our concerns known about Iran's nuclear program. We are in alignment with the United States. I think there is no daylight between us when it comes to that issue.

FADEL: Now, one place that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have not been fully in alignment has been on Saudi Arabia's human rights record. And one of the reasons that ties were severed between Saudi Arabia and Iran was the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who criticized the monarchy, led anti-government protests. Saudi's treatment of its minority religious sects, like Shia Muslims, has continued to be seen by human rights groups as poor. Mass executions continued. Has that been something that has come up in these discussions with Iran as relations are restored?

NAZER: So Islam, which is the foundation of our value system and laws, teaches us to treat all human beings with respect and compassion. So respect for human rights is in fact enshrined in our basic law, which is the equivalent of our Constitution. We are signatories to several - or actually many international agreements on the treatment of women, on the treatment of children, people with disabilities, and the list goes on.

FADEL: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, others have criticized Saudi Arabia for using overly broad provisions within the judicial court system and terrorism laws to suppress dissent and target religious minorities.

NAZER: Some of the cases where people refer to some of the people who are on trial as activists were in fact hardened criminals that had blood on their hands. Saudi Arabia has adopted a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to terrorism and extremism of all sorts, regardless of whether they're Sunni or Shia.

FADEL: I mean, obviously, this is viewed very differently among human rights groups who are documenting those cases, but I want to talk about oil prices now. I know that they spiked after Saudi Arabia announced a cut to its output, then eased due to anticipated weaker energy demand, are back up. What do you expect to be the long-term impact of these cuts?

NAZER: The kingdom has played a central role really for decades in stabilizing global energy markets. We have always supported production levels that are fair to both producers as well as consumers. The decisions that we've made, including the decision to reduce production back in October, has proven to be wise, evidenced by the fact that prices have actually continued to decrease. They have not skyrocketed, as some people were predicting. And again, if you look at the price of oil compared to other fuels like natural oil and coal, it's been remarkably stable and consistent going back over the past two years.

FADEL: That's Fahad Nazer, Saudi Arabia's spokesman at the embassy here in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for your time.

NAZER: It's been a pleasure, Leila. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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