For the Biden Administration, Saudi Arabia Is Both an Ally and a Problem

Anyone who expected the Biden administration to immediately sever ties with Crown Prince Mohammed is overlooking the Saudis’ strategic importance, several experts tell Haaretz

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman announcing a zero-carbon city called The Line earlier this year.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman announcing a zero-carbon city called The Line earlier this year.Credit: BANDER ALGALOUD/COURTESY OF SA
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – Now the Biden administration has released the long-awaited intelligence report on the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and issued its punitive measures, the outstanding questions are where do U.S.-Saudi ties go from here and what is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s standing in D.C.?

Leading foreign policy experts tell Haaretz the rollout and actions are typical of the Biden administration’s pragmatic foreign policy approach, and that he will now look to chart a clearer path forward while working to prevent something like the Khashoggi murder ever happening again.

Friday’s unclassified report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence assessed that Crown Prince Mohammed had approved a Saudi operation to capture or kill Washington Post columnist Khashoggi, who had become increasingly critical of the kingdom over the years, when he visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Khashoggi’s body was never recovered and details of the gruesome murder were widely circulated around the world.

Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that nothing about the Biden administration’s release of the report, the report itself, nor the lack of direct sanctions on Crown Prince Mohammed was particularly surprising.

“In terms of where this leaves Mohammed bin Salman, he’s not in a terribly different position than he was in before,” Cook says. “Of course the Trump administration ran interference for him – but he hasn’t been sanctioned, he will still talk to the secretary of defense, he is still the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, and this whole idea of holding him accountable has proven to be very difficult,” he adds.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, Texas, describes the four-page summary released last Friday as underwhelming in the sense that it didn’t reveal any new information.

“You wonder why there was such a big effort to prevent it from being made public,” he says, referring to the Trump administration’s decision to block its release for over a year. “Clearly there may be aspects to the classified report that haven’t been made available, but in terms of the summary released, it doesn’t really add anything to what was already reported except that it gives official U.S. intelligence backing to the material that’s already in the public domain – this is no longer just media reporting,” Ulrichsen says.

“There was no direct smoking gun, it’s a lot of sort of circumstantial evidence, there’s no clear direct attribution. But with any assessment of Saudi Arabia since 2017, where Mohammed bin Salman is clearly the one who makes decisions, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this could not have happened without his approval,” Ulrichsen notes.

“There’s no direct linkage in the summary that says MBS definitively ordered this to happen. It lets him off the hook – though it’s hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that he approved in principle of the decision to apprehend Khashoggi. That now has the backing of U.S. intelligence behind it, so it makes it harder in a sense for MBS to escape accountability for the incident in broader terms,” Ulrichsen says. He adds that by delegating the initial phone call with the crown prince to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, “they’ve made it very clear already that MBS will not be the primary point of contact for the Biden administration. That’s already quite a signal, and a signal that’s not consistent with how the Saudis would like it to be.”

Harrassing dissidents and journalists

Ulrichsen believes the lasting effect of the events surrounding the report’s release relates to the kingdom’s crackdown on dissidents, including through its alleged use of spyware technology produced by Israel’s NSO Group.

A demonstrator dressed as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman protesting outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, demanding justice for murdered dissident Jamal Khashoggi.Credit: JIM WATSON - AFP

“The State Department actions put the Saudis, and other others as well, on notice that if they persist in this behavior, there will be consequences,” Ulrichsen adds.

Cook says the State Department’s new “Khashoggi Ban” – which gives it the authority to deny visas to those acting on behalf of foreign governments who are believed to be harassing activists, dissidents and journalists – is the most notable aspect of the Biden administration’s announcements.

“Not only have the Saudis been super-aggressive in that area, so has Turkey, so has Russia, so have a variety of our Middle Eastern partners, and it’s outrageous that they come here and do the same,” he says. “Egypt harasses dissidents here and follows them around in Northern Virginia. I hope Europe follows suit” and bans them, Cook adds.

The Biden administration’s actions are a moderate approach, according to Ulrichsen, consistent with its desire to take action in a way that doesn’t rupture the relationship. “The administration has talked about recalibrating the relationship with Saudi Arabia: Not cutting or drastically resetting it, but a sort of nuanced approach,” Ulrichsen says. “Perhaps the limited actions taken by the State Department, such as the sanctions list and the Khashoggi list monitoring groups that are threatening journalists, is a way for the administration to take action in a limited way.”

Cook describes the Biden administration’s punitive measures as front-loading. “They can get those things out of the way, it satisfies demands from Congress, it satisfies demands from important elements of the Democratic Party. It’s also the right thing to do, and in foreign policy you often don’t get the opportunity to do the right thing.”

Ulrichsen acknowledges the disappointment from progressive Democrats and grassroots organizations that had been campaigning for a much firmer approach, “but that’s also the nature of being in government: you have to balance. There are no easy answers, but there will inevitably be demands from progressive elements for a kind of approach that holds MBS accountable – and this report doesn’t do that for them,” he says.

“On the other hand, this is a future king of Saudi Arabia whose position within his own country is unchallenged, and probably unchallengeable at this stage. He cannot be sidelined or ignored without accusations of a soft coup, or at least moves toward that effect, so you have to work with him. But the middle-of-the-road approach is perhaps to work with him at a lower level, and try and bypass him for government-to-government communication in ways that his position as crown prince might otherwise not suggest,” Ulrichsen suggests.

If people are disappointed by the U.S. response, Cook says, they have failed to recognize the pragmatic nature of Biden and those around him. “We never sanction foreign leaders. MBS is not technically the leader, but he’s de facto the leader. The idea that we can hold MBS accountable in some way – how does that even work, what does that even mean?” he asks. “The administration has taken a good approach to this while preserving a relationship they’re likely going to need. That’s the way of the world, that’s foreign policy: a bunch of not terribly attractive choices.”

Ulrichsen notes that if it emerged that the crackdown on dissidents was continuing, “there would also be a lot more political pressure in the U.S. or elsewhere for a hard-line approach – which the Biden administration may or may not take into account. But there will still be a political backlash, especially among Democrats in Congress.”

People waking past a banner showing Saudi King Salman, right, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jiddah last month.Credit: Amr Nabil/AP

He says that even though the Saudi crown prince was not directly sanctioned, there will be a stain attached to him as long as Biden remains in office, and perhaps longer.

“I think there will be a footnote next to his name because of what has happened, because the shock and outrage generated by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi was so widespread,” Ulrichsen says. “Politically for Biden, it would be easier if King Salman passes away later rather than sooner. Obviously, if there’s a succession next week or next month, it will be politically very delicate. But if it was in a year, two years, or even if it was in five years, I think the stigma will still be there.”

Cook concurs. “I’d imagine there would be some difficult and awkward moments if the king dies in the next few months, but the U.S. will work with Mohammed bin Salman if and when he becomes king. We will accommodate ourselves to it, as we accommodate ourselves to government changes all the time in places that are high stakes for us without much trouble,” he says.

Cook notes that, in spite of the affair, the Biden administration understands the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. “These are all smart people, they come into the Oval Office and survey the Middle East – and there’s one conclusion they can draw: Of all the major Arab states still standing, Saudi Arabia is the only one that can be an interlocutor for the United States. Egypt is in strategic hibernation asking us not to force them to make a choice between the U.S., China or Russia. Iraq is in this terminal state, hardly in a position to play a role we need in the region,” Cook says.

The Saudis need America more than America needs the Saudis, according to Cook, but he says it’s not a one-way street – which is especially relevant in regard to Iran’s nuclear program. “If you want to do an Iran deal, you’re going to have to elicit the cooperation of the Saudis,” he says. “The Saudis, in cooperation with Israel or the UAE, have means around the region to disrupt things that could rebound unfavorably on U.S.-Iran negotiations. They certainly have proven that they can marshal resources in and around Washington to oppose a deal. It’s a very delicate dance.”

Aggravated and annoyed

The Saudis will feel aggravated, annoyed and embarrassed over the events, according to Cook, though he believes they anticipate moving past the drama relatively soon.

“There are lasting consequences – the Khashoggi ban, sanctions on [former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence services] Ahmed al-Asiri and 70 others – that will hang over the relationship. But ultimately Biden has sought to preserve the relationship,” Cook says.

Ulrichsen doesn’t anticipate any further spillover in U.S.-Saudi relations, despite any subsequent posturing. “From a Saudi point of view, I actually think they’re probably quite relieved with the messages they’ve received from the administration so far. We’ve had, on the one hand, the statement that offensive operations in Yemen will not be supported anymore. But to sell it, the administration reaffirmed support for Saudi defensive operations.

“And then the release of this summary, which probably will be seen as quite underwhelming just because it doesn’t seem to put out into the public domain anything that wasn’t already known. It was probably one of the least damaging outcomes that could have been seen along that spectrum,” Ulrichsen adds.

Honor guards carrying coffins of Houthi fighters killed in recent fighting in Yemen's oil-rich province of Marib, during a funeral procession in Sanaa last month.Credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS

Whether the report’s release adversely impacts U.S.-Saudi ties lies with the Saudis, Cook notes. “Are they going to rein it in? Are they going to stop harassing dissidents? Are they going to change laws they already committed to enacting? Have they learned their lesson?”

Cook believes Biden can now get down to business with Saudi Arabia on a variety of issues. “They can help get the Saudis out of Yemen. They can widen the circle of peace. They can work with the Saudis and other regional partners on how to craft a negotiation with the Iranians,” he says. “I suspect that message was somehow communicated to the Saudis: ‘We’re going to do these things, but we still see you as a partner.”

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