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U.S. President Joe Biden has finally announced a nominee as his Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Assuming the Senate confirms him, career diplomat Michael Ratney will take up his post in Riyadh at a low point in U.S.-Saudi relations.

Notwithstanding the meeting recently between CIA Director Bill Burns & Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia continues to reject U.S. appeals to increase oil production to lessen Americans’ pain at the gas pump. Gas prices have increased nearly 20% since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in April.

More ominously, Saudi Arabia has expanded defense cooperation with China. America's most formidable international competitor is helping the Kingdom to build its own domestic ballistic missile production capability. In his first trip outside the country since the Covid pandemic, President Xi Jinping is expected to travel to Riyadh in the near future. According to recent reports, his overtures to the Kingdom include promises of new weapons sales.

Saudi Arabia's rulers have turned a deaf ear to administration and congressional pleas on human rights, which continue on a downhill trajectory. In March, Bin Salman ordered the execution of 81 prisoners in one day, the highest such number in decades.

As if to underscore this sad state of affairs, MBS erupted in fury during a recent meeting with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan when the U.S. official mentioned the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His pledge of $2 billion to Jared Kushner's investment fund is a clear sign that Saudi Arabia is betting on -- and pushing for -- the return of a more pliable Republican administration.

Democrats in the White House and Congress are wringing their hands over their demonstrated failure to exert any meaningful leverage over America's most troublesome Middle Eastern ally. Some advisors pushed President Biden to swallow his pride and meet with MBS, and indeed there are still-undefined plans for him to do just that this summer -- but it will not make much of a difference if he does. Saudi Arabia's de facto leader has been quite forthright about his views of the U.S. President's opinion: "Simply, I do not care," he told an interviewer recently.

Saudi Arabia's autocrat appears to have learned some valuable lessons from his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin: Hang tough; stick to your guns; and wait out your opponents. International outrage over the assassination of dissidents and armed invasions of neighbors will pass, and in the interim, marshaling the unchecked powers of a police state to impose draconian limits on internal dissent will keep a cowed population silent. Meanwhile, the strategic deployment of Saudi Arabia's oil wealth will temper international isolation and buy off critics.

If the Biden administration is serious about changing Saudi behavior, it needs to squeeze MBS's by engaging directly with the Saudi people. Offer hope to the millions of Saudis who are waiting for a leader with clout to champion their deserving cause. Meeting with dissidents and providing support to their families would send a powerfully tangible message that individuals matter, and that the United States supports them.

More systemically, and in line with the sentiments expressed at the last year's Summit for Democracy, the United States can and should take concerted action to empower indigenous Saudi actors advocating for human rights and constitutional reform. The Summit outlined an impressive list of initiatives to bolster democratic reformers worldwide. These measures should be applied with a laser-like focus to Saudi Arabia.

For example, the State Department has set aside $10 million to support civil society organizations under threat because of their democracy and human rights work. Another $15 million has been earmarked for assisting nonviolent social movements by increasing coordination through exchanges, seed grants, and engagement with younger pro-democracy actors. Saudi Arabia's citizens are in dire need of such assistance, yet they are not currently included in these programs.

The Summit also drew attention to the issue of digital authoritarianism by announcing an Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative to better monitor and restrict the proliferation of dual-use technologies. Saudi Arabia has proved adept at using such technologies to monitor, harass and imprison independent voices and their followers. The U.S. government and its partners could demonstrate their seriousness by using this mechanism to crack down on MBS's techno-police state.

Pursuing such measures will certainly not make Ambassador-designate Ratney's job any easier. But given the current trajectory in U.S.-Saudi relations, any envoy from Washington to Riyadh will find him or herself isolated and marginalized. A more robust approach would therefore serve multiple purposes. It would enhance U.S. credibility by matching rhetoric with concrete action. It would provide a tangible lifeline to a besieged and downtrodden population. And not least of all, the United States would secure valuable leverage over Saudi Arabia's leadership, which until now has blithely dismissed our toothless entreaties. Ali al-Ahmed is director of the Institute of Gulf Affairs. The views expressed are the author's own.