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The US-Saudi Recalibration 

Three questions to Soli Özel

INTERVIEW - 14 May 2021

The Trump administration was often criticized for overlooking human rights violations committed by the Saudi regime, this in turn leaving the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, with a blank check to realize his regional aspirations. His successor, Joe Biden, pledged to reassess the US-Saudi relationship. On February 26, 2021, the new administration’s decision not to impose sanctions on MBS for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi disappointed many. Yet the US-Saudi relationship is built on a number of mutual strategic interests that do not depend on power in Riyadh and Washington. Soli Özel, Senior Fellow at Institut Montaigne shares his analysis of the US-Saudi recalibration. 

Joe Biden is redesigning US strategy in the Middle East, and shaking up alliances. In your opinion, how far will the United States go in recalibrating their close relationship with Saudi Arabia?

It has been obvious from the get-go that, under President Joe Biden, the United States would treat Saudi Arabia very differently than the previous occupant of the White House. No more private channels through the son-in-law, no direct access to the President and no preferential treatment. Furthermore, whereas the previous President had no patience for humanitarian principles or democratic values in the conduct of foreign policy, the Biden administration assumed Office with the claim of upholding moral principles and democratic values. It was also obvious that the incoming administration would not tolerate the bullying of neighbors or other such conduct. It is no coincidence that the boycotting and ostracization of Qatar ended before Joe Biden took office. More recently, the United States took a very firm position supporting King Abdullah of Jordan against what appeared to be a Saudi instigated/encouraged coup attempt, therefore giving Riyadh and its strongman a clear message to stay clear of such moves.

It is no coincidence that the boycotting and ostracization of Qatar ended before Joe Biden took office. 

In the major test case of the murder of a dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, the administration chose not to punish the Crown Prince who, the US intelligence confirmed, "approved an operation in Istanbul… to capture or kill Jamal Khashoggi". Yet because his "protective detail" (his bodyguard team, the Rapid Intervention Force) is now banned from entering the US for carrying out the assassination, the Crown Prince is by extension no longer welcome there.

Moreover the US President, who refuses to speak with the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, designated the Secretary of defense as the Prince’s interlocutor. Hence a balance was forged between the imperatives of realpolitik in relations with the Kingdom, and the moral values professed by the administration. It is also important to note here that the United States withdrew its support from the war in Yemen and froze arms sales to the Kingdom. The administration also demands that the harassment of dissidents abroad and their mistreatment in Saudi Arabia be stopped. In fact, it is through this type of pressure that the prominent woman dissident Loujain al-Hathloul was finally, but conditionally, released. These will be the parameters within which the relations between the US and Saudi Arabia will evolve under the new administration.

Opening up Saudi Arabia to the world is part of MBS's 2030 Vision, a strategy aimed at reducing the country's dependence on oil and diversifying its economy. How is the country positioning itself towards the new American administration, whose attitude towards the Kingdom isn’t quite favorable?

The Biden administration is supportive of MBS’ Vision 2030. The American business community certainly is. In fact, it was interesting to see that in a major interview on al-Arabiyya television, the Crown Prince claimed that "We are more than 90% in agreement with the Biden administration when it comes to Saudi and US interests and we are working to strengthen these interests.

Biden’s strategic or foreign policy decisions are not expected to hamper support for economic reform.

The opening of the Kingdom, and the diversification of the economy as the oil age gradually recedes, will continue. MBS himself outlined his program, launching "The Line", a 170 km belt designed without cars or roads in the now fabled city of Neom, that would connect communities. Other mega projects are Red Sea Development and the Qiddiya entertainment city, both aiming to boost the tourism industry. Biden’s strategic or foreign policy decisions are not expected to hamper support for economic reform.

What is the impact of the US-Saudi recalibration at a regional level?

It is not just the relations with Saudi Arabia that the United States is recalibrating. Yet, there is also a lot of continuity. In fact, on some of the major decisions that the Trump administration took, Joe Biden has not changed course. The Embassy will remain in Jerusalem, but the Palestinians will also receive services and will not be treated as if they did not exist. The Golan annexation decision is not going to be reversed any time soon, if ever. The most important change for all America’s allies is the reignition of the JCPOA. After an unpromising start, Tehran and Washington have begun to negotiate. The Gulf countries are adjusting themselves to the new situation as well. The UAE had begun contacts with Iran before Biden got elected. Numerous reports indicated that Iranian and Saudi officials met in Baghdad and finally, a few days ago, Iranian authorities acknowledged that the talks were ongoing and were aimed at reducing tensions. Such a development leaves Israel alone in pursuing a very hard line against Iran, whose engineers have been assassinated, and whose nuclear facility in Natanz has been attacked by Israel. 

The Abraham Accords provides the Gulf countries with some degree of Israeli security guarantee. Adjusting their policies to that of the American President under these circumstances is expedient.


 

Copyright: MANDEL NGAN / POOL / AFP

 

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