Analysis |

There’s a Shake-up in Store for Saudi Arabia, and Biden Isn't Concealing His Target

The U.S. president isn't recalibrating the relationship with the whole country, but with one specific person

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a virtual cabinet meeting in Riyadh, last year.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a virtual cabinet meeting in Riyadh, last year.Credit: HANDOUT/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

What did White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki mean when she said that the Biden administration planned to “recalibrate” its relationship with Saudi Arabia? Recalibration is generally a technical term for adjusting a device whose mechanism is slipping, deviating from the manufacturer’s instructions or producing poorer results than expected.

For decades Saudi Arabia has been considered a well-oiled machine that responds well to client demands. There were especially close ties with Republican presidents, like both generations of the Bush family, or the House of Trump, the president and his son-in-law, who knew how to produce mutual benefits in the diplomatic, economic and personal realms.

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If recalibration is needed, it’s from the Saudi side, which from time to time “reevaluates” its relationship with the United States, particularly when U.S. President Barak Obama supported the revolutions of the Arab Spring, and later when he signed the nuclear agreement with Iran. Now comes President Joe Biden with a new recalibration device that he’s seeking to try out on Saudi Arabia; not on the whole country, but on one specific person – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

How this reevaluation of the relationship was to be interpreted was explained by a State Department spokesman, who, in response to a question by the Guardian about the expected relations with Saudi Arabia, answered at uncommon length, saying, “The American people expect that U.S. policy towards its strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia prioritizes the rule of law and respect for human rights. Accordingly, the United States will cooperate with Saudi Arabia where our priorities align and will not shy away from defending U.S. interests and values where they do not.”

Such a text, directed at the United States’ most important strategic partner in the Middle East, is nothing less than a slap in the face. Although Riyadh expected a flurry of rage, after Biden had said during the election campaign that he would treat Saudi Arabia like a pariah as long as Crown Prince Mohammed was its de facto ruler, the content and speed with which Biden planted his new policy flag surprised even Saudi Arabia’s opponents.

Human rights and the rule of law were two fundamental issues during Biden’s election campaign, and even if their violation in another country could undermine the strategic relationship between that country and the United States, Biden wouldn’t hesitate, or at least that’s how he wanted to be understood. Things of this nature that he or his spokespeople have said are not aimed at Saudi Arabia alone. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are all included in the “recalibration” planned for the new administration’s relationships in the Middle East.

There’s a shake-up in store for Saudi Arabia this week, as the U.S. administration is expected to release its intelligence report on the involvement of Prince Mohammed in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi two and a half years ago in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The report was supposed to be released in 2019, but President Donald Trump blocked its publication and even defended Prince Mohammed after the latter jailed eight people involved in the assassination.

Although the report is just an unclassified abstract of investigations by the U.S. intelligence service, based on what’s been leaked, it is expected to lay full blame for the murder on Mohammed. If the leaks are correct, Biden will have great difficulty managing policy toward Saudi Arabia with the crown prince. During the first stage, as Psaki explained, the relationship will be between Biden and King Salman, and “At the appropriate time [Biden] would have a conversation with him.” There couldn’t be a clearer indication of where Biden is placing Mohammed in the Saudi-American discourse. Nowhere.

U.S. President Donald Trump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, two years ago.Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

There’s still a “but.” Prince Mohammed is the kingdom’s defense minister, and fulfills other governmental functions, and the U.S. administration will have no choice but to speak to him as well. These conversations will be at the ministerial and professional levels; there won’t be any more calls directly from the U.S. president, as there were during the Trump era.

Another question is what will happen when King Salman disappears from the stage due to illness or death. But even before that, will Biden ignore the crown prince at international gatherings? Is Biden already hinting that it would behoove the kingdom and the king to find a new heir if they want to maintain good relations with the White House?

The administration’s spokespeople and advisers are trying to soften the blow delivered by Biden and say that these are issues of symbolic protocol, that the president speaks to heads of state and not to crown princes, and there is no intent to neutralize Prince Mohammed or try to remove him from the regime. It will be interesting to see if that rule holds when Biden seeks to speak to the ruler of the UAE. Will the phone ring on the desk of the crown prince, bin Zayed, or in the room of his sick father? Even more interesting is how Biden will act if Crown Prince Mohammed announces that he’s establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, and proposes signing the agreement on the White House lawn with Biden in attendance.

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