Will the Biden team tighten or unravel US-Saudi ties?
Many thought U.S.-Saudi relations were going to be an early casualty of the Biden administration. Perhaps they still will be, but for the moment the ties are strengthening. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported “U.S. Forces Expand Reach in Saudi Arabia.” On Sunday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz had reported “Israel Allows U.S. to Deploy Iron Dome Missile Defense in the Gulf.” Quite where the missiles will be deployed is not being disclosed, but the kingdom would be one obvious destination.
Yet these developments, apparently finalized in the last months, or even weeks, of the Trump administration, are surely vulnerable to any readjustment of relations or reduction in U.S. posture in the Gulf. Congressional sentiment is already concerned about a deal with Saudi Arabia to supply extra munitions for its air force, likely to be dropped (with varying degrees of accuracy) on Houthi targets in Yemen. And the deal to sell F-35 advanced fighter jets and drones to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), signed on the morning of Jan. 20 no less, is likely to be subject to a review lasting “many months.”
Clarification on the real state of the ties between Washington and Riyadh could be provided if and when the CIA’s assessment of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is released. Avril Haines, who was confirmed as Director of National Intelligence last week, promised to declassify the intelligence report on the incident during her appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That development is a proverbial (and perhaps appropriate) “sword of Damocles” hanging over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MbS, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia. In a “transition report” on human rights, published Jan. 26, even the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies described MbS as “the primary culprit” in Khashoggi’s murder.
Other items on almost any liberal agenda against Saudi Arabia include the continued detention of women activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who could be released at the end of next month. But she still would be banned from leaving the kingdom for five years, a restriction she and others will noisily protest. MbS appears to be deaf to the disquiet that such actions prompt. His diplomats argue human rights are a domestic issue and do not concern foreigners. But at the weekend he announced plans to double the value of the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund to over $1 trillion. To the extent that he wants foreign investors, he may need to change his thinking.
Meanwhile, MbS has another headache. Someone is targeting his capital Riyadh with missiles or drones. On Jan. 23 and again on Jan. 26, residents heard loud explosions and saw smoke high overhead. Saudi media were silent, but the American embassy issued a security alert, which offered some confirmation that something bad happened. Today the Wall Street Journal reported that an important royal complex suffered minor damage. The first attack may have emanated in Iraq, where security is poor and pro-Iranian groups can operate freely. The second attack may have been from Yemen, where the Houthi rebel government is sustained, at least militarily, by Iran.
The lack of apparent damage is little relief either to Saudi Arabia or its Gulf Arab allies, which are even more vulnerable to direct or instigated attacks by Iran. That new calculus has operated since the September 2019 drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s crucial Abqaiq oil processing plant and another facility. If Iran wants to attack, it can. Small pinprick incidents are likely to be deliberate, rather than an indication of equipment failure.
The policy ingredient lacking clarity for the moment is the degree to which the Biden administration wants to compromise with Tehran over restrictions on its nuclear program. With Tony Blinken confirmed as Secretary of State, things may change — although many would anticipate that diplomacy will be slow and, like the original 2015 deal, may have limited impact on Iran’s regional activities.
The Wall Street Journal report said that U.S. forces will be operating from air bases in Taif and Tabuk, in the West of the kingdom, as well as the current Prince Sultan base south of Riyadh. The Red Sea port of Yanbu would be used for transport ships, avoiding the Strait of Hormuz. Much of this is reminiscent of the footprint the U.S. had in the late 1990s when Saddam Hussein in Iraq needed to be deterred. Whether the Biden administration knew it was inheriting this strategy is yet to be revealed.
Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.
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