The United States and Saudi Arabia are entering a new era in their 76-year partnership with the release of the CIA assessment finding that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “approved” the 2018 murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Before now, an American president has never cut off personal links to the Saudi heir apparent, who has often served as de facto ruler of the kingdom. But the White House incumbent declared his intention to make that very heir a “pariah” in Washington and internationally as well.
The State Department has also set a new precedent by issuing visa restrictions on 76 Saudis “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas” under a new “Khashoggi ban” created in memory of the Saudi journalist brutally murdered and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The victim, who had taken up residence in exile outside Washington, D.C., wrote occasional critical commentaries about the crown prince for The Washington Post over the year before his assassination.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was deliberately spared from the Khashoggi ban, or any other sanction, to preserve a modicum of communication and cooperation between the two governments. Still, as the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, noted, MBS is destined to live under a lifetime “stigma” for his role in the affair. He is unlikely to be invited to the White House for years to come.
Biden has said that from now on, he will only talk to King Salman, Mohammed’s father and the American president’s official counterpart. But the king is 85 years old and in failing health. When he dies, Biden would presumably refuse to communicate with the kingdom’s new monarch, an unprecedented situation in the history of U.S.-Saudi relations dating back to World War II.
In the past, the personal relationship between the U.S. president and reigning Saudi monarch has been a key determinant in setting both the tone and substance of ties between the two countries. At this point, the only senior U.S. official authorized to talk to Crown Prince Mohammed, who is also minister of defense, is his counterpart, Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin III.
It is too early to predict what effect this freeze in communication between leaders will have within the ruling House of Saud on Mohammed’s destined ascent to the throne. The crown prince is very popular among young Saudis, but his ruthless tactics used to grab power from two former crown princes have made him numerous enemies among more senior-ranking princes.
The Biden approach to dealing with Saudi rulers stands in sharp contrast to that under former President Trump. He chose to make his first trip abroad to Saudi Arabia where he was treated like a king, and he consulted constantly by phone with the crown prince on the making of U.S. policy toward Iran and a settlement of the Palestinian issue. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had a particularly close working relationship with MBS.
Trump bragged with some that he had “saved the ass” of the crown prince from the wrath of Congress. The former president vetoed numerous resolutions calling for a suspension of arms sales to the kingdom and demanding punishment for ordering Khashoggi’s murder.
What impact the new “Biden doctrine” toward the crown prince will have on the overall U.S.-Saudi relationship remains to be seen. But it seems likely it will be reduced mostly to formal state-to-state transactions and avoid an open break which neither side wants.
The main glue of the relationship remains massive U.S. arms sales to the Saudi kingdom and covert cooperation in combating terrorism. Since 2010, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency has notified Congress of $134 billion in potential arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has been the most important foreign market for the American defense industry for decades.
The Biden administration has reiterated its commitment to defending Saudi Arabia from foreign aggression and will continue to provide “defensive” arms. However, it has already announced the suspension of “offensive” weapons in use against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who have seized control of most of neighboring Yemen. Forthcoming arms sales to the kingdom are now under review, presumably to determine which are defensive and which offensive. Saudi Arabia’s main military challenge right now is shooting down scores of Houthi drones and missiles fired regularly across its border. Earlier this month, a Houthi drone hit an airport in southwest Saudi Arabia, puncturing a hole in an Airbus A320 civilian aircraft.
Other than the crown prince, the most divisive and immediate issue in U.S.-Saudi relations is how to deal with Iran, the kingdom’s arch rival for regional primacy. Iran has proven itself to be the most serious military threat after demonstrating its ability to amass drones and cruise missiles to knock out nearly half of the kingdom’s oil production for several weeks in September 2019.
Biden has begun charting a diplomacy initiative to entice Iran back into the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Acton (JCPOA) aimed at preventing it from developing nuclear weapons. Former President Trump regarded the accord the “worst ever” in U.S. diplomatic history and withdrew the United States in 2018. Saudi Arabia applauded Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of economic and financial sanctions to force Iran to re-negotiate the accord with added constraints on its expansionist activities in neighboring Arab counties. However, Iran made no concessions and slowly broke, one by one, many of its JCPOA commitments.
Biden’s about-face toward Iran from Trump’s hardline stand seems certain to lead to even more discord in the fraught U.S.-Saudi relationship — one no longer buttressed by all-important personal ties bonding U.S. and Saudi leaders in the past.
David Ottaway is a Middle East specialist with the Wilson Center and former Washington Post correspondent. This article was reprinted with permission and was originally published as part of the Wilson Center’s Viewpoint Series.