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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.

Go deeper

12 hours ago - Health

FDA advisory panel recommends Pfizer boosters for those 65 and older

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Key Biscayne Community Center on Aug. 24, 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

12 hours ago - World

France recalls ambassadors from U.S. and Australia over submarine deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."

Updated 12 hours ago - World

In reversal, Pentagon now says drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians

Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A U.S. drone strike launched on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, rather than the Islamic State extremists the Biden administration claimed it targeted, the Pentagon said Friday.

Why it matters: U.S. Central Command said at the time that officials "know" the drone strike "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport, and that they were "confident we successfully hit the target."