Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), is testing and tempting President Biden to see whether his once-in-a-generation review of bilateral ties will amount to more than a new coat of paint. If Biden's reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship doesn't produce new policies that go beyond letting MBS off the hook for killing a dissident journalist, then the future for American interests in the Gulf may be bleaker than before.
Following the Trump administration's disgraceful appeasement of Saudi excesses – including Riyadh's flagrant abuse of human rights and rule of law and its destabilizing war in Yemen – Biden entered the White House with the promise of undoing some of the damage.
In February, Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenAides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE imposed sanctions against 76 accomplices to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But the so-called “Khashoggi ban" did not include their ringleader MBS – whom the CIA has determined was behind the notorious murder – and it did not apply to other flagrant abuses of human rights by the government of Saudi Arabia. The United States missed a golden opportunity to hold Saudi Arabia accountable and to deter it from future violations of international standards.
The Biden administration needs to go further. It should cancel the multi-billion-dollar weapons sale approved by Trump. That means fewer weapons for attacking Yemeni civilians as well as Saudi citizens and a sobering loss of prestige for a preferred customer for America's most exclusive toys. As MBS continues to hawk his futuristic "Vision 2030," it might also disrupt the ingrained mutual dependency of American guns for Saudi oil.
Shortly after Biden's inauguration, the White House indicated that the president would be dealing with King Salman as the monarch, rather than treating his son MBS as the "go to" guy, as Trump had done. Given the poor state of Salman's health and cognitive functions, their conversations aren't likely to be rigorous or definitive, and this still doesn't keep the impulsive MBS from running the show until the day he becomes king in his own right. But tough action sets the tone for future relations.
To its credit, the administration has taken an early and principled stand by speaking out on behalf of Saudi prisoners of conscience who are being held without charges and by criticizing outrageous sentences handed down by kangaroo courts. In the early weeks of Biden's presidency, the Saudi government abruptly freed two Saudi-American dual nationals, Badr Al Ibrahim and Salah AlHaidar, after two years of detention. The renowned women's rights activist Loujain AlHathloul was also released.
Biden himself welcomed Loujain’s release, making history as the first U.S. president to personally comment on a Saudi activist, and he has also pledged not to ignore Saudi violations of human rights.
But though he may fear the new sheriff in Washington, D.C., MBS is still trying to project his power and play favorites. It should be obvious that MBS, who now exercises absolute control over the courts and every other part of the Saudi system, gave these gifts to Biden as a courtesy and to provide a fig leaf should this new administration seek to merely pay lip service to true reforms and rule of law in Saudi Arabia.
At roughly the same time, the crown prince's minions arranged a summary trial to convict Abdulrahman Al Sadhan, a young humanitarian worker, and sentenced him to 20 years in prison for the crime of tweeting. It is well known that Abdulrahman's mother and sister, who are U.S. citizens, live in the congressional district of House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden pushes back at Democrats on taxes Yarmuth and Clyburn suggest .5T package may be slimmed Of partisan fights and follies, or why Democrats should follow Manchin, not Sanders MORE (D-Calif.) — a prominent critic of Saudi brutality.
MBS has handed a rose to Biden and thrown down the gauntlet to Capitol Hill. The same lack of nuance in his approach to internal dissent may also be driving an assumption that, like his predecessors, this president will not heed calls by congressional Democrats and Republicans to impose some discipline on Saudi behavior.
MBS wants American decisionmakers and corporate shareholders to believe he's serious about democratic reforms and free markets as a guarantee of stability. Nothing he has done so far reflects a sincere commitment, and at the very least the Biden team can reject that misleading narrative. As results of the administration's reassessment are revealed in the coming weeks and months, MBS will know just how much latitude he has to continue to reinforce his iron rule and regional adventurism, all to the detriment of both our countries.
Ali AlAhmed is founder and Director of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Gulf Affairs.