U.S. President Joe Biden intends to “recalibrate” Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and will emphasize outreach to King Salman, in a move that signals a downgrade in ties with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler.
It is the latest sign Biden’s team is taking a different track from former President Donald Trump toward the world’s largest oil exporter. Trump established close ties with Prince Mohammed and made Saudi Arabia the centerpiece of his strategy toward the Middle East after taking his first trip abroad as president there.
That’s all being scaled back. In Biden’s first few days, the U.S. put a hold on some key weapons sales to the kingdom and announced new efforts to bring an end to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Biden has also called on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record.
“We’re going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday. “Part of that is going back to engagement counterpart-to-counterpart. The president’s counterpart is King Salman.”
Instead of engaging primarily with Biden, the crown prince’s most appropriate counterpart is Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, according to a person familiar. While Prince Mohammed’s official role is deputy prime minister and defense minister, he has a vast range of responsibilities as heir to the throne his father, 85, has held since 2015.
He runs the country’s day-to-day affairs, and it’s common for foreign leaders to liaise with him directly, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and France’s Emmanuel Macron.
The changes suggest U.S.-Saudi relations will return to “more structured, routine channels,” according to Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Mideast official at the State Department. “This is a slapdown of MBS, who the administration views as reckless and ruthless.”
A White House official, who asked not to be identified discussing the change, said Psaki’s comment signals a return to longstanding diplomatic process.
A Saudi official who asked not to be identified said the kingdom’s government is confident that bilateral ties will strengthen during the Biden administration, emphasizing shared interests as well as agreement on threats, challenges and opportunities in the Mideast. The official described ties with the U.S. as “strong.”
Nevertheless, there’s been disquiet in Saudi elite circles over how Biden might change the U.S. relationship with the kingdom — and with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival.
“Tehran sees Biden as weak,” read the headline of a column on Wednesday in Al Sharq Al Awsat, written by Abdulrahman Al Rashed, a Saudi commentator close to the government.
The relationship isn’t entirely broken. U.S. officials have said they want to help the Saudis be better able to defend themselves against Iranian aggression, and the U.S. is expected to work closely with the kingdom’s authorities to help bring about an end to the Saudi-led war in neighboring Yemen.
The crown prince became a pariah in much of official Washington after the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. An investigation by a United Nations special rapporteur implicated senior Saudi officials who reported directly to the crown prince, an accusation rejected by the kingdom’s officials.
Trump and his administration, in particular his son-in-law Jared Kushner, remained close to Prince Mohammed after the murder and avoided blaming him for it. Trump defended the relationship, saying billions of dollars in U.S. weapons sales to the kingdom would just go to China or Russia if the U.S. pushed back.
Avril Haines, Biden’s director of national intelligence, has vowed to release an unclassified CIA report into Khashoggi’s killing that is likely to embarrass the crown prince.
Recasting the relationship is “meant to send a signal that President Biden wants certain things from the crown prince, such as an end to the war in Yemen and a different approach to dissent at home,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, now at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Responding to a question about the administration’s broader outreach to the Mideast, Psaki said Biden intends to talk to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “soon” and this would be his first call with a regional leader. Israeli government officials have publicly complained that Biden hasn’t called him.
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