Feb 25, 2021 - World

Biden's big Saudi reset

Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Ryad Kramdi/AFP via Getty

President Biden spoke with Saudi Arabia's King Salman this evening ahead of the release of a CIA report expected to implicate the king's son, and the kingdom's de facto ruler, in the murder of a U.S.-based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Why it matters: In one month, Biden has ended support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen, frozen a large arms deal and snubbed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) by declining to speak with him directly.

  • The most dramatic step yet will be the publication of the Khashoggi report, expected Friday. Its release was mandated by Congress but blocked by Donald Trump.
  • Sanctions are expected to follow on Saudis accused of taking part in the murder, though MBS is unlikely to be targeted directly.
  • Between the lines: Biden's foreign policy has thus far featured more strategic reviews than bold strokes. But when it comes to Saudi Arabia — having promised on the campaign trail to “make them the pariah that they are" — Biden seems to be ripping the bandaid off all at once.

Flashback: Trump's first foreign trip was to Riyadh. His administration saw the kingdom as a key market for U.S. arms and a pivotal partner in countering Iran.

  • It shielded MBS, a close contact of Jared Kushner's, from the outrage in Washington over Khashoggi's murder.
  • Clearly, times have changed.

“It’s pretty dramatic,” says David Rundell, a former U.S. chief of mission in Riyadh and the author of Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads, of Biden's early steps. “To be honest, I find it all rather dangerous.”

  • Rundell notes that in addition to cooperating with the U.S. against Iran and in counter-terrorism, Saudi Arabia supports stability in oil markets and in the region through its aid to other Arab governments. The kingdom has also played a behind-the-scenes role in fostering relations between Israel and the Arab world.
  • The kingdom does those things mainly out of self-interest, Rundell says. But they’re also willing to hedge their bets.
  • “What would really indicate to me that they had had enough? A significant increase in their relationship with either Russia or China.”

The big picture: Biden’s intention is not to sever the relationship but to bring it down to size. While the leaders of America's democratic allies are wrapped in an embrace, the impulsive crown prince is kept at arm's length.

  • Biden appears to have attempted to reassure King Salman in their call today.
  • According to the White House readout, he noted the “historic nature” of the relationship, welcomed the recent release of jailed Saudi activists and pledged to help Saudi Arabia defend itself.
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