Af­ter Trump’s em­brace, Saudi may find Bi­den is not so bad

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Un­der Don­ald Trump, Saudi Ara­bia got all the at­ten­tion it could have wanted from the US— and more. While a Bi­den pres­i­dency looks cer­tain to end the love- fest, the king­dom’s lead­ers may not mind as much as one might think.

King Sal­man bin Ab­du­laziz and his son, Crown Prince Mo­hammed, are set to lose much of what they gained dur­ing Trump’s four years in of­fice, in­clud­ing hastily ap­proved weapons sales, the eas­ing of pres­sure over hu­man rights abuses, and not least a back- chan­nel via the pres­i­dent’s son- in- law, Jared Kush­ner.

But the good times came with some­thing less ben­e­fi­cial: an er­ratic, some­times un­pre­dictable US for­eign pol­icy in which Wash­ing­ton in­flamed ten­sions with Iran and talked tough but never re­sponded force­fully to cruise- mis­sile strikes on Saudi oil fa­cil­i­ties.

A Joe Bi­den ad­min­is­tra­tion might seem at first glance like it’s all bad for the king­dom and for the crown prince who largely runs the coun­try and as­sumed his role less than a year af­ter Trump took of­fice. Yet while there will cer­tainly be greater scru­tiny, es­pe­cially over hu­man rights, the coun­try may have an op­por­tu­nity in a US pres­i­dent who isn’t all that dif­fer­ent from Trump in re­gard­ing Saudi Ara­bia as a cru­cial ally in a volatile re­gion.

“What Saudi Ara­bia has wanted is to be seen as a state like any other, to be a leader in the G- 20, to have le­git­i­macy,” said Karen Young, a res­i­dent scholar at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. “What the Bi­den ad­min­is­tra­tion can of­fer is to say, ‘ OK fine, you want to be treated like any other part­ner in the Mid­dle East, no more spe­cial re­la­tion­ship, let’s lay it all out.’”

G-20 test

SAUDI ARA­BIA will get a fresh chance to bur­nish its bona fides this week­end when it hosts a vir­tual sum­mit of the Group of 20 na­tions. It’s still un­clear whether Trump will make a video ap­pear­ance: The White House has re­fused to say whether he’ll at­tend, as the pres­i­dent pushes claims of voter fraud in the Novem­ber 3 elec­tion that he lost to Bi­den.

In yet one more sign of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s long sup­port for the regime, Sec­re­tary of State Michael Pom­peo will visit the coun­try’s lead­ers briefly on Sun­day in the fu­tur­is­tic planned city of Neom.

Saudi Ara­bia al­ready seems to be ad­just­ing to the new po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity. Af­ter ini­tially hold­ing off, its lead­ers sent ca­bles con­grat­u­lat­ing Bi­den and seek­ing warmer ties with the US, ac­cord­ing to the Saudi Press Agency. King Sal­man “praised the his­tor­i­cal deep- rooted re­la­tions be­tween the two friendly coun­tries, adding that both coun­tries are keen to de­velop and en­hance these re­la­tions in all fields,” it said.

The Bi­den tran­si­tion team de­clined to com­ment when asked to dis­cuss the pres­i­dent- elect’s ap­proach to Saudi Ara­bia. But while on the cam­paign trail, Bi­den re­ferred to the coun­try as a “pariah” and said he would end sup­port for the war in Ye­men, where a Saudi- led coali­tion has been fight­ing the Iran- aligned Houthis for more than five years in an ef­fort to re­store the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment, con­tribut­ing to one of the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian crises.

At the same time, Bi­den has made clear Saudi Ara­bia is a “crit­i­cal” part­ner in pre­serv­ing sta­bil­ity in en­ergy mar­kets and the Mid­dle East.

Keep­ing calm

“WE should rec­og­nize the value of co­op­er­a­tion on coun­tert­er­ror­ism and de­ter­ring Iran,” Bi­den told the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions in July 2019. “But Amer­ica needs to in­sist on re­spon­si­ble Saudi ac­tions and im­pose con­se­quences for reck­less ones.”

Such pledges to co­op­er­ate have helped keep calm in Saudi Ara­bia. Of­fi­cials rec­og­nize that it is a less harsh tone than Pres­i­dent Barack Obama took, as when he once vented about the “so- called ally” and said Saudi Ara­bia must “share” the re­gion with Iran.

Saudi Ara­bia’s lead­er­ship is also as­suaged by Bi­den’s past com­ments that while he wants to re­join the Iran nuclear deal that Trump aban­doned, he also wants fol­low- on ne­go­ti­a­tions to strengthen the deal. Saudi Ara­bia re­gards Iran as its chief re­gional foe, and op­posed the 2015 nuclear ac­cord be­tween Iran and world pow­ers.

The king­dom’s eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal im­por­tance to the Mus­lim world rules out any ma­jor change in re­la­tions, ac­cord­ing to Mo­hammed Al­su­lami, head of Rasanah, an Iran- fo­cused think tank based in Riyadh.

Turkey crit­ics

“YOU can­not ig­nore that,” he said. “Maybe you will talk more about hu­man rights is­sues— maybe Ye­men more— but not more than that.”

For the Saudis, there is also the mat­ter of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­pend­abil­ity. Saudi Ara­bia’s trust in the Trump team was shaken last year af­ter the pres­i­dent re­sponded with harsh words but no ac­tion when mis­siles and drones launched from Iran hit a Saudi oil field and the world’s big­gest crude- pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity in Abqaiq.

The king­dom is also aware that a Bi­den ad­min­is­tra­tion might be tougher on Turkey, a Saudi ri­val, whereas Trump largely held off crit­i­cism of Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan.

“Given the fact that we’re wean­ing our­selves off Arab hy­dro­car­bon, Bi­den can pur­sue a dif­fer­ent ap­proach,” said Aaron David Miller, a se­nior fel­low at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace and for­mer Mideast of­fi­cial at the State Depart­ment. At the same time, he said, the Bi­den ad­min­is­tra­tion will want to make sure Saudi Ara­bia sees a smooth tran­si­tion of its own should King Sal­man, who is now 84, for­mally trans­fer power to the crown prince.

“The real eq­uity with Saudi is mak­ing sure the place re­mains sta­ble and sur­vives,” he said.

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