Under Joe Biden, US cools relations with Saudi crown prince
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US President Joe Biden’s decision to deliver on his promise to release a CIA report on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi comes as no surprise to foreign policy experts. What has raised eyebrows, however, is his administration’s pointed sidelining of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, marking an end to the Saudi heir’s privileged position under the Trump administration and one of Washington’s cozier relationships in the region.
In November 2016, the month Donald Trump was elected US president, a Saudi delegation of top aides to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited New York, where they met members of the Trump transition team.
Upon their return home, the delegation delivered a slide presentation of their conclusions, which was obtained by Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar and then shared with the New York Times.
The Saudi team identified Trump’s son-in-law as the focal point of their new US diplomatic strategy. Jared Kushner – with his business dealings, lack of Middle East experience and singular focus on securing Trump a “deal of the century” Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement – was particularly vulnerable to Riyadh’s advances. Trump’s “inner circle is predominantly dealmakers who lack familiarity with political customs and deep institutions, and they support Jared Kushner”, the Times quoted the original Arabic report as saying.
The strategy worked marvelously for the Saudis and particularly for the crown prince, widely known as MBS.
Two years later, when Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, it wasn’t long before US media reports, quoting CIA findings, revealed that MBS had ordered the assassination.
After initially denying Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, Riyadh eventually said the murder was a rogue operation that was not linked to MBS, the kingdom’s 35-year-old de facto ruler.
Despite the clamour for answers, Trump stood by the Saudi crown prince, declining to release the CIA report and rejecting demands by lawmakers to release a declassified version.
In many ways, the House of Trump and the House of Saud had similar ways of doing business, whether they were affairs of state or real estate deals. Trump’s emphasis on personal relations while rejecting entrenched government institutions found a perfect fit with the House of Saud’s system of patronage and clientelism in the absence of robust state institutions.
But the window for deal-making between Washington and Riyadh now appears to have closed.
On the presidential campaign trail, Joe Biden repeatedly promised to demand accountability for Khashoggi’s murder. His director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, committed at her confirmation hearing to complying with a provision in a 2019 defense bill that required the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to release a declassified version of the report.
The Biden administration’s decision to make good on its promise has come as no surprise to US foreign policy experts. What did raise eyebrows, however, was the new administration’s decision to rebuff the Saudis’ chummy way of conducting diplomatic business in Washington, DC, and its blunt distancing from MBS.
At a briefing on Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden would only communicate with Saudi Arabia’s 85-year-old monarch, King Salman, and not his son and heir.
“We’ve made clear from the beginning that we’re going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” said Psaki. And “part of that is going back to engagement counterpart to counterpart”.
“The president’s counterpart is King Salman,” she added.
“It’s undeniable that we are witnessing a break with American diplomacy in the Trump era vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia,” explained Karim Sader, a Gulf expert, in an interview with FRANCE 24. However, it is “above all a change in attitude towards a person, namely the crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman”.
“The decision could not have been made more clear to choose King Salman as the interlocutor and no longer his son, who had intimate access to the Oval Office through Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner,” said Sader.
Ending support for Yemen operations
Biden’s promised recalibration of US policy on the Middle East has been swift and, in some cases, decisive.
Two weeks after his inauguration, Biden announced an end to US support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen’s longstanding war, which the US president said had created a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also decided to remove the Iran-backed Houthi rebels – Saudi Arabia’s foes in the conflict – from the US list of terrorist organisations. The last-minute blacklist designation by the Trump administration just days before leaving office was slammed by humanitarian groups, who said it would hinder desperately needed aid shipments to Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.
The Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war began in 2015. As the world’s youngest defence minister, MBS sold the war as a quick and decisive military intervention that would annihilate the Houthis, a promise that has failed to materialise and has plunged the poorest Arab nation into a humanitarian disaster.
Biden has “multiplied the decisions that are unfavourable to the prince and his policies”, noted Sader, calling the decision to remove the Houthis from the US anti-terrorist list “the last diplomatic gift Donald Trump offered just before leaving power”.
‘The sugar high of the Trump years is over’
The Saudi crown prince is not the only player in the region feeling a chill from the outcome of the November presidential election.
“Elections have consequences. And nowhere are the consequences of Joe Biden’s election more worrisome than in Jerusalem and Riyadh,” noted former State Department analyst Aaron David Miller in a Politico column. “In the past week, the president has signaled to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the region’s two biggest egos – that the sugar high of the Trump years is over.”
Barely a week after Biden’s inauguration, Richard Mills, then acting US ambassador to the UN, announced the new administration’s plan to restore diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority, more than two years after Trump effectively ended them.
“President Biden has been clear in his intent to restore US assistance programs that support economic development and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people,” Mills told the UN Security Council, adding: “US assistance benefits millions of ordinary Palestinians and helps to preserve a stable environment that benefits both Palestinians and Israelis.”
Some of Trump’s policies on Israel are likely to remain unchanged under the Biden administration, such as the US embassy remaining in Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords with Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which have been hailed as a positive for economic development and security in the region by Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
But Biden’s renewed emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis returns to the longstanding US position of calling for a two-state solution and calls for Israel to refrain from expanding settlements or annexing territory. Above all, with the pandemic and economic recovery grabbing much of Biden’s attention, a reversal to the old position of putting the Israeli-Palestinian crisis on the back burner is most likely.
The end of the bromance
In many ways, Biden’s promised “recalibration” of US-Saudi relations is likely to be more of a return to Obama-era policies that saw a shift in Washington’s oil dependence on the Gulf kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia remains a leading ally of the US, and it is in the interest of neither country to put an end to this alliance,” explained Sader.
However, the oil-rich kingdom no longer has the same strategic importance for the US as it had decades ago. “The United States, which has embarked on the development of unconventional energies, including shale gas, has reached a stage of production that allows it to free itself from dependence on Saudi oil – a dependence that was the basis of their alliance,” said Sader.
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For MBS, the writing has been on the wall since the election. And Sader said he has already made certain concessions, including the release of a prominent Saudi feminist activist.
“The Crown Prince feels the pressure of the new administration. He has ceded ground on a number of issues, particularly the reconciliation with Qatar and the release of the Saudi human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul,” he said.
While US-Saudi relations are not expected to change dramatically, the end of the Kushner-MBS bromance could get politically uncomfortable for the Saudi crown prince.
In 2014, Saudi security forces rounded up dozens of the kingdom’s political and business elite – including around a dozen princes – in an MBS-led purge that saw them virtually held prisoner in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh as the country’s new de-facto ruler sought to consolidate his influence. Many of those targeted were rival members of the prince’s own family.
“If he loses his American ally, Mohammed Ben Salman will lose a lot of credit internally,” said Sader, noting that the Saudi heir has “many enemies” in the kingdom, notably what he called “the conservative fringe” and “all the princes he has publicly humiliated”.