Feb 18, 2021 - World

Austin calls MBS days after Biden's snub of the Saudi crown prince

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Thursday to reaffirm the "strategic defense partnership" between the two nations and discuss recent changes to U.S. policy on Yemen, the Pentagon said.

Why it matters: The call comes just days after the White House said it would "recalibrate" its relationship with Saudi Arabia, and return to "counterpart to counterpart" engagement, with President Biden's counterpart being King Salman, not MBS.

  • White House press secretary Jen Psaki's comments were widely seen as a snub to the crown prince, who is considered by many as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia.

The big picture: Since taking office, the Biden administration has announced the end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition's offensive operations in Yemen, reversed the Trump administration's decision to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terror group, and paused an arms deal with the kingdom.

  • The Biden administration is also set to release a U.S. intelligence report that concluded that MBS ordered the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, per the Washington Post.
  • Yes, but: Axios' Barak Ravid reported last week that "the Saudi government was sending signals that it's ready to cooperate on Yemen and make improvements on human rights in an effort to avoid a crisis with Biden."

What they're saying: "The Secretary condemned the recent Houthi cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and expressed his commitment to assisting Saudi Arabia in the defense of its borders," the Pentagon said in a readout of the call between Austin and MBS.

  • "Secretary Austin reiterated recent changes in U.S. policy toward the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen, discussed the importance of ending the war, and thanked the Crown Prince for Saudi Arabia’s commitment to a political settlement," it added.
  • Austin "underscored Saudi Arabia’s role as a pillar of the regional security architecture in the Middle East and the importance of sharing the responsibility of regional security and stability. "
  • "Secretary Austin noted US and Saudi shared commitment to countering Iran’s destabilizing activities and defeating violent extremist organizations in the region."

Go deeper: Saudi Arabia moves to ease tensions with Biden on Yemen, human rights

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