The Morning Call
Saudis expect chilly tone from president-elect
Experts say new pressure could help temper its behavior
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.