The writer is a London-based political analyst focusing on Turkey, Israel, and the Gulf. He holds a master’s in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.
Joe Biden’s pledge to “reassess” the US-Saudi relationship was one of the president’s boldest campaign promises on foreign policy. Now there seems to be an impetus in the Biden White House to make good on that promise, as US policy vis-à-vis the kingdom is rapidly shifting. Biden’s first moves were to announce an end to support for the controversial Saudi campaign in Yemen and to review planned arms transfers to Riyadh. But Biden will likely not stop there and will seek to construct a novel, all-encompassing approach in dealing with one of America’s most controversial allies in the Middle East.
In a bid to redeem the United States from the legacy of Trump, who presented ambitious Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) with a blank check for him to realize his regional aspirations, Biden is keen to restructure US-Saudi relationship. Biden’s calculations are as domestic as they are international. The president seems to be geared towards appeasing audiences at home, such as Congress, which is hoping to see a heavier hand in the American approach to Saudi Arabia. Such expectations are particularly prevalent among Biden’s own Democrats, who hope that Saudi Arabia will become – in Biden’s own words – a “pariah.” Biden is also eager to re-introduce the United States as a bastion of human rights and liberal values in the international arena, which necessitates a clean break from some of Riyadh’s questionable regional policies and botched record on human rights.
In addition to changing US policy on Yemen, Biden will be inclined to confront the kingdom on two matters. Foremost, he will address Riyadh’s appalling record on cracking down on domestic dissent, starting with revisiting the brutal 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Secondly, Biden is expected to reign in MBS, by reverting the relationship between Washington and Riyadh back to an institutional level rather than a personal one, thereby weakening the crown prince’s ability to project power and steer Saudi foreign policy. In this sense, Biden’s forthcoming approach to Saudi Arabia appears to be a total overhaul of the Trump era.
Biden’s next steps
The administration is expected to release an unclassified report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the coming days. The findings of the report could implicate the highest echelons of the Saudi leadership, including the crown prince. While Trump was oblivious to the whole affair and downplayed the possible role of MBS in ordering the murder, Biden could be prompted to take a tougher stance, with more and more details being made public.
This is likely to be the beginning of a policy that will see Biden taking a more public stance against Saudi Arabia’s handling of domestic political opposition. The central figure in all of these proceeds seems to be the crown prince, who has overseen the kingdom’s policies in recent years, including the crackdown on domestic political opponents and activists.
Biden is seeking to distance the US from the crown prince by emphasizing the institutional links between the two countries. The idea that MBS is a controversial and unreliable figure seems to be well entrenched in the Biden White House. In an earlier press briefing, the White House press secretary emphasized that Biden’s counterpart in Saudi Arabia is King Salman, not the crown prince. This indicates a major departure from the previous US approach to Saudi leadership.
The Trump years saw MBS develop a close personal understanding with Jared Kushner, the former president’s foreign policy advisor and son-in-law. Under Trump, the US-Saudi relationship, originally built on strong institutional ties that superseded partisan lines, became increasingly transactional. Dealings between Washington and Riyadh were reduced to negotiations between MBS and Kushner, with the crown prince being condoned despite his erratic decisions and ambitious agenda.
While Trump hosted MBS in the White House and boasted of the amount of weaponry sold to Saudi Arabia, he showed that the US was willing to condone the crown prince in exchange for favorable transactions. Biden’s approach to MBS will not be so simple. Biden will undoubtedly have to make overtures to King Salman, as Saudi Arabia still remains a close partner for the US in a tumultuous region, yet the crown prince could be bypassed altogether.
MBS enjoyed a direct line to the White House by virtue of Kushner. Now that connection has been lost and Saudi Arabia’s ability to influence relevant policies has greatly diminished as a result. Biden’s rationale seems to suggest that Saudi Arabia will be treated just like any other country as far as US foreign policy is concerned. The privileged status that Trump and his aides accorded the kingdom is now a thing of the past.
Saudi damage control
From the outset, Saudi Arabia has sought to downplay a rift between the two countries, proclaiming that Riyadh will work closely with the Biden White House. In fact, Saudi Arabia was quick to endorse Biden’s move to push for a political solution in Yemen in an attempt to spin the president’s decision as being in line with Saudi interests. More significantly, however, Saudi authorities recently released jailed political activist Loujain al-Hathloul in a direct move to appease Washington and relieve some of the human rights pressure on them.
There is a softening of both domestic and regional policy in Saudi Arabia. As the US reassesses its relationship with the kingdom – with outcomes that will most likely be important – Saudi Arabia is also reassessing its position. The Saudis no longer enjoy privileged access to the White House, nor are they able to escape criticism and reprimand for questionable policies. This has prompted Riyadh to tone down its regional strategy, support a political settlement in Yemen, and even rethink aspects of domestic policy, as the example of Loujain al-Hathloul suggests.
Saudi authorities are now probably waiting with bated breath as Biden further unveils how he is seeking to engage with the kingdom. It was significant that Biden chose to single out Yemen in his first major foreign policy address, a decision that has dramatically altered Saudi calculations. The still-unresolved Khashoggi affair and MBS’s recent fall from grace in Washington suggest that Biden is gearing to fulfill his promise of reexamining the relationship. With the ultimate aim of casting off the long shadow of the Trump years, which almost saw Saudi Arabia’s aspirations come to fruition, Biden is designing a more nuanced approach that will certainly make things more difficult for Riyadh and its aspiring crown prince.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.