The Morning Call

Saudis ex­pect chilly tone from pres­i­dent-elect

Ex­perts say new pres­sure could help tem­per its be­hav­ior

- By Ben Hubbard Military · U.S. News · Warfare and Conflicts · Middle East News · Politics · World Politics · Beirut · Donald Trump · Saudi Arabia · Saudi Arabia national football team · Crown · Mohammad bin Salman · Salman of Saudi Arabia · White House · Yemen · Jamal Khashoggi · Istanbul · United States of America · Middle East · Joe Biden · Joe · Council · Washington · National Council of Austria · Riyadh · Israel · Qatar · Lebanon · Central Intelligence Agency · Philippines Department of Justice · Twitter · International Crisis Group · United Nations · Iran · Council on Foreign Relations · Brookings · House of Saud · Jared Kushner · Whatsapp · United States Department of Justice

BEIRUT — For the last four years, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s close re­la­tion­ship with Saudi Ara­bia meant that there was seem­ingly noth­ing its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, could do to earn a re­buke from the White House.

Saudi bombs killed civil­ians in Ye­men, Saudi ac­tivists went to jail, and Saudi agents dis­mem­bered the dis­si­dent Saudi writer Ja­mal Khashoggi in Is­tan­bul. None of it shook Trump’s com­mit­ment to the king­dom as a re­li­able part­ner against Iran — and an im­por­tant pur­chaser of U.S. weapons.

Now Saudi Ara­bia is brac­ing for a new Amer­i­can leader who has vowed to end sup­port for the Ye­men war, pe­nal­ize hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions and treat Saudi Ara­bia like “the pariah that they are.”

“It is past time to re­store a sense of bal­ance, per­spec­tive and fidelity to our val­ues in our re­la­tion­ships in the Mid­dle East,” Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Bi­den told the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions last year when asked about Saudi Ara­bia. “We will make clear that Amer­ica will never again check its prin­ci­ples at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.”

The dif­fer­ence in tone is stark, and Crown Prince Mo­hammed may have to ac­cept that, un­less he changes his ways, he is un­likely to be as wel­come at the White House as he was un­der Trump. Ex­perts said they did not ex­pect a break with the king­dom, but pres­sure from a Bi­den administra­tion could push Saudi Ara­bia to tem­per its more reck­less be­hav­ior.

“There are a lot of rea­sons for this re­la­tion­ship to con­tinue — it has a lot of value for both sides — but it sim­ply can­not con­tinue in the way it has for the last four years,” said Ta­mara Cof­man Wittes, a se­nior fel­low in the Cen­ter for Mid­dle East Pol­icy at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “There have been a se­ries of vi­o­la­tions of the rules be­tween friendly gov­ern­ments, a vi­o­la­tion of norms.”

Saudi of­fi­cials have played down the ex­cep­tional ties be­tween Trump and the king­dom, in­stead em­pha­siz­ing the nearly eight decades of co­op­er­a­tion be­tween coun­tries.

“Our re­la­tion­ship is far deeper than just one Saudi leader or one Amer­i­can pres­i­dent,” Princess Reema bint Ban

dar al-Saud, the Saudi am­bas­sador to Washington, said in a video ad­dress to the Na­tional Coun­cil on U.S.-Arab Re­la­tions this week.

Saudi Ara­bia’s re­gional power and its grow­ing global promi­nence — it will host the vir­tual Group of 20 sum­mit in Riyadh this week­end — make it an im­por­tant U.S. part­ner, she said.

“As our eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural re­forms strengthen the king­dom, we’ll be even bet­ter po­si­tioned as the most depend­able U.S. ally in the re­gion,” she said.

Bi­den could find that he needs Saudi Ara­bia to help build re­gional sup­port for a new Iran strat­egy, to sta­bi­lize oil mar­kets or to help restart peace talks be­tween Is­rael and the Palestin

ians. A Saudi of­fer to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with Is­rael could pro­vide lever­age to get con­ces­sions for the Pales­tini­ans and raise the king­dom’s stand­ing in Washington, al­though Saudi and Is­raeli of­fi­cials have said such a step is not im­mi­nent.

Trump’s pres­i­dency has tracked closely with the rise of Crown Prince Mo­hammed, 35, whose fa­ther, King Sal­man bin Ab­dul-Aziz Al Saud Sal­man, as­cended the Saudi throne in 2015 and gave his son over­sight of the gov­ern­ment’s most im­por­tant port­fo­lios, in­clud­ing de­fense, oil and eco­nomic poli­cies.

Crown Prince Mo­hammed be­came crown prince in 2017 and cul­ti­vated a close re­la­tion­ship with Trump’s son-in-law and se­nior ad­viser, Jared Kush­ner, of­ten meet­ing him pri­vately in Saudi Ara­bia and ex­chang­ing mes­sages on What­sApp.

Crown Prince Mo­hammed has over­seen a tur­bu­lent pe­riod, push­ing for vast so­cial and eco­nomic changes at home while plung­ing Saudi forces into Ye­men’s civil war, join­ing a block­ade on Qatar, forc­ing the res­ig­na­tion of Le­banon’s prime min­is­ter and lock­ing up busi­ness­men, cler­ics and ac­tivists.

His in­ter­na­tional stand­ing took a beat­ing when Saudi agents killed Khashoggi in­side the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul in 2018, a crime the CIA said Crown Prince Mo­hammed had likely or­dered. The crown prince has de­nied or­der­ing the killing or hav­ing any prior knowl­edge of it.

Last year, the Jus­tice Depart­ment ac­cused two Saudi men of spy­ing for the Saudi gov­ern­ment as em­ploy­ees of Twit­ter.

Through it all, Trump re­frained from crit­i­ciz­ing Saudi Ara­bia while sup­port­ing it in ways that alarmed of­fi­cials in other branches of gov­ern­ment. He ap­plauded the block­ade of Qatar, which hosts a large U.S. air base; ve­toed a bipartisan res­o­lu­tion that would have ended U.S. sup­port for the Ye­men war; and said it did not mat­ter whether Crown Prince Mo­hammed had or­dered Khashoggi’s killing be­cause the Saudis op­posed Iran and bought lots of U.S. weapons.

An­a­lysts said Trump’s sup­port had en­abled Crown Prince Mo­hammed’s riskier moves and that a new tone from the White House could have the op­po­site ef­fect.

“I think the sup­port from Washington em­bold­ened him and took away many of the guardrails that ought to have been there,” said Rob Mal­ley, pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group. “Bi­den has been very clear about Ye­men, Iran and hu­man rights. Those are three ar­eas where you are likely to see a shift from the present.”

Of­fi­cials on Bi­den’s tran­si­tion team de­clined to com­ment, not want­ing to ap­pear to con­duct for­eign pol­icy while another pres­i­dent was still in charge.

In Ye­men, the United States has helped Saudi Ara­bia and its al­lies with aerial re­fu­el­ing of jets, with in­tel­li­gence and with bil­lions of dol­lars in arms sales. United Na­tions of­fi­cials have called the war the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, and Saudi airstrikes have killed large num­bers of civil­ians and de­stroyed key in­fra­struc­ture.

The Saudis blame Ye­men’s Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, for caus­ing the cri­sis and for block­ing ef­forts to end the war.

 ?? DOUG MILLS/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump dis­cusses weapons sales with Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man in 2018.
DOUG MILLS/THE NEW YORK TIMES Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump dis­cusses weapons sales with Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man in 2018.

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