Joe Biden to communicate with King Salman, not Crown Prince MBS in effort to 'recalibrate' Saudi policy
America’s relations with Saudi Arabia, one of its tested allies in the Middle East, have seen a churning in the Joe Biden presidency. Nearly a couple of weeks after the president withdrew the US's support for the Saudi-backed military operations in Yemen, the White House has announced that Biden will now communicate with Riyadh through the 85-year-old Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and not Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who has emerged as the kingdom’s prominent face before the world.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing on Tuesday, February 16: “We’ve made clear from the beginning that we're going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” As part of the recalibration, Biden will speak to the Saudi king rather than the Crown Prince, marking a departure from the previous Donald Trump administration. “Part of that is going back to engagement counterpart to counterpart, the president's counterpart is King Salman and I expect that, at an appropriate time, he would have a conversation with him,” she added.
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Former president Trump and his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, who played a key role in the administration’s Middle East policy-making, were close to MBS. The Trump administration was accused of not treating Saudi Arabia strongly enough after Washington-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime, was brutally killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. MBS was accused of having played a role behind it. Kushner’s close relationship with MBS raised eyebrows as their conversations took place outside the diplomatic channel -- via apps and texts.
The 35-year-old Saudi crown prince has also been accused of torturing human rights activists, carrying out Riyadh’s bombing campaign in Yemen which has caused a massive humanitarian crisis and famine and the arrest of members of the country’s royal family in 2017 during a power struggle. MBS has also made the headlines for taking the initiative to bring radical socio-economic and political reforms in Saudi Arabia to make it more attractive a destination for international investors and prepare the base for the country’s post-oil future, but it is the controversies that have shaped up his image more.
On February 3, the Foreign Policy magazine came out with a piece on Saudi Arabia in which it was said that US. “President Joe Biden has made his intentions very clear: The Trump administration’s so-called “free pass” to the erratic and uniquely powerful leadership of Saudi Arabia must end.”
During his presidential campaign in 2020, Biden made known his strong stand on Saudi and in the year before, he said: "I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are." The Democrat said this while calling for accountability for the assassination of Khashoggi.
The challenges that US face on the Saudi question
According to the FP piece: “The challenge will be to acknowledge the United States’ own role in accommodating and excusing Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses at home and abroad and then establishing a new framework for engagement with a country that, even as the locus of fossil fuel trade shifts elsewhere, still matters to the United States. Convincing members of Congress and US citizens that a healthy US-Saudi bilateral relationship is in the United States’ interest will be a necessary pivot for the Biden administration if it is to achieve even its limited policy agenda in the Middle East.
“The United States has treated Saudi Arabia as a special case for decades, making excuses for its draconian domestic politics while trying to sustain a partnership centered on oil and security. Most recently, the United States has helped build one of the best-equipped and worst-performing militaries in the world in the kingdom as the incompetent airstrikes across Yemen have clearly demonstrated. Starting in 2015 under the Barack Obama administration, the United States aided a Saudi military operation in Yemen that has turned into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
Biden, however, will not find the going on Saudi easy. In the wake of the rocket attacks at an Iraqi air base on Monday, February 16, in Erbil that hosts American forces Washington will also have to take into consideration Riyadh’s military cooperation in fighting terrorism and counter-balance Iran’s influence in the region.
Bilal Saab, a former Trump defense official who is now working with the Middle East Institute, told Politico how sensitive the situation is. “This was all meant to signal that there is a new sheriff here in town in Washington, and we’re going to review everything [Trump] did — no more carte blanc. At the same time … this is one relationship that you obviously don’t want to lose. It is too valuable to mess up,” he said.