Saudi Arabia moves to ease tensions with Biden on Yemen, human rights
The Saudi government is sending signals that it's ready to cooperate on Yemen and make improvements on human rights in an effort to avoid a crisis with President Biden.
Driving the news: Two events on Wednesday underscored those efforts: prominent women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who led the fight to allow Saudi women to drive, was released from prison; and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan met in Riyadh with the new U.S. envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking.
Flashback: On the campaign trail, Biden accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, stressed that he wouldn't sell weapons to the Saudis and promised to "make them the pariah that they are."
- Now in office, Biden has frozen an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, announced the halt of U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen, and rolled back Donald Trump's designation of Yemen's Houthi rebels as a terror group.
The other side: The Saudis haven't criticized Biden's moves publicly, and are trying to navigate the new reality through private talks with the administration.
- Saudi deputy defense minister Khalid Bin Salman, the crown prince's brother and confidant, seized on the one positive line in Biden's recent foreign policy speech, in which he said the U.S. would help Saudi Arabia defend itself.
- Meanwhile bin Farhan welcomed Lenderking's appointment despite Biden's shift on Yemen. On Wednesday they discussed ways to find a political solution to the crisis, according to the Saudi foreign ministry.
- The release of al-Hathloul after 2.5 years in prison is another indication that the Saudis want to avoid a clash with Biden over human rights. Her arrest had caused outrage around the world
The important step from the crown prince may ultimately be the announcement on Monday of major legal and judicial reforms that will establish civil law in the country for the first time, in addition to Islamic law.
- “The absence of applicable legislation has led to discrepancies in decisions and a lack of clarity in the principles governing facts and practices. … This was painful for many individuals and families, especially women, permitting some to evade their responsibilities," the Crown Prince said.
- The timing of the announcement looks like a signal to the Biden administration.
Worth noting: Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke to bin Farhan on Friday, after he'd already spoken to several other Arab foreign ministers. In the call, he stressed the need for the Saudis to take steps on human rights and end the war in Yemen.