Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the central foreign policy of the United States has been focused on the Middle East. In addition to the competition for oil resources, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration sent U.S. troops to attack Iraq and Afghanistan and stationed troops in the Middle East. It was only after the Obama administration launched its pivot to the Asia-Pacific region in its second term. Also, Trump was elected president in 2016 with an “anti-China” slogan that U.S. foreign policy moved from the Middle East to China. Now, David H. Rundell, a 30 years veteran of the U.S. State Department and a longtime diplomat based in the Middle East, gives an exclusive interview to Eat News to analyze Trump and Biden administrations’ Middle East policies.
Rundell attended Oxford University in England. While at university, he had realized that the center of gravity of the Arab world shifted from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. After studying Arabic at Oxford, Rundell became a U.S. diplomat and spent 30 years in Washington, D.C., Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. “I watched the Kingdom evolve from a country without paved roads connecting major cities into a member of the G20 group of the world’s largest economies. I participated in Operation Desert Storm, Saudi accession to the World Trade Organization and the defeat of Al Qaida’s terror campaign in Saudi Arabia”, he said. After retiring from the U.S. State Department in 2010, Rundell spent three years at Monitor Deloitte, a management consulting firm, before joining Arabia Analytica as a partner. Rendell now lives in Dubai and regularly travels to Saudi Arabia.
According to a report in Politico, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has restructured the National Security staff in the Middle East and Asia directorates — downsizing the team devoted to the Middle East and bulking up the unit that coordinates U.S. policy toward the vast region of the world stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.
When primary U.S. foreign policy has shifted from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, Rendell, who served six U.S. presidents, insists on writing about his Middle East diplomatic experience in Vision or Mirage, which was recently published. He told us, “On the one hand, I wrote Vision or Mirage for my successors at the American Embassy in Riyadh so they will no longer need to spend twenty years trying figure out how the last strategically-important, absolute monarchy operates. At the same time, I wrote the book for the educated public interested in the social and political transformation of an impoverished, tribal, society into a prosperous, unified nation.”
He specifically mentioned that despite the significant social and economic reforms enacted by King Salman, Saudi Arabia remains an enigma to most Americans. The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, crackdown on dissent, subjugation of influential members of the ruling family, and the war in Yemen have strained its relationship with the West. “While in Saudi Arabia, I worked in all three major cities, Riyadh, Jed-dah, and Dhahran. My assignments included Chargé D’Affaires, Deputy Chief of Mission, Political Counselor, Economic Counselor, and Commercial Counselor. This is an unequaled record on single-country-concentration for an American diplomat, not only in Saudi Arabia but in any country. There are cabinet ministers in Saudi Arabia today whom I have known for over 20 years. Thus, the book provides a unique and granular analysis of the Kingdom from an insider who observed the country from numerous perspectives over a long period”, he said.
In his book, Rundell raises a critical question that is also on the minds of U.S. policymakers today. In a world flooded with U.S. shale oil, does Saudi Arabia still matter? In only a few short years, fracking has transformed the U.S. from a major oil importer into a producer greater than Saudi Arabia. As a result, the Kingdom’s primary protector has become its chief competitor. U.S. oil abundance has helped slash world oil prices to about half of what the Kingdom needs to finance its welfare state. Why did Trump maintain better relations with the royal regime of Saudi Arabia during his presidency, even developing a close personal friendship with King Mohammed bin Salman? Rendell argues that the United States has become more energy-independent as a result of the fracking revolution. But the world still depends on stable, predictable Saudi production.
Eat News also questioned the Middle East experienced diplomat about the extended-standing U.S. use of “democracy” as a slogan for foreign propaganda. However, Saudi Arabia is still not a democracy but a dictatorship ruled by a royal family. Why has the U.S. government not criticized the Saudi Arabian royal regime? Rendell admits that the U.S. has many shared interests with Saudi Arabia. “These interests provided the boundaries for the relationship. It always remains within them. The USA does not share many values with Saudi Arabia. Thus within the boundaries set by common interests, the relationship is very volatile. Under Trump, US policy was interest-oriented. Now it will be more values-oriented.”
On the success of Trump’s presidency in getting the UAE and Israel to sign the Abrahamic Agreement, Rendell believes that the Abraham Accords are an essential step in bringing peace to the Middle East, something the Saudis would very much like to see and have supported in the past.
In addition, whether the Biden administration will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal has been the focus of global attention. Coupled with President Biden’s announcement that he will no longer support intervention in the Yemeni civil war, what impact will these policies have on U.S.-Saudi relations? Rendell analyzed that over the past 75 years, the Saudi-American partnership has survived many difficult moments, including the 1973 oil embargo, a Saudi purchase of Chinese ballistic missiles, and the attacks of 9/11. That is because both nations share a fundamental interest in regional peace and stability. He added, “Today, the United States benefits from Saudi cooperation in stabilizing energy markets, countering terrorism, and promoting an end to the Arab Israeli dispute. I expect President Biden will push Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen, repair its relations with Qatar and improve its human rights record. Still, I would be surprised if he abandons the Saudi-American partnership.”
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