Saudi Arabia braces for Joe Biden
Saudi Arabia is bracing itself for a tougher relationship with the incoming Biden administration after four years in which President Trump gave it a direct line to the Oval Office and offered support even as some of its policies and actions drew controversy and bipartisan scorn.
The Trump-Saudi relationship was a constant source of tension between the White House and many Republicans in Congress, who chafed at the Kingdom’s involvement in the killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the White House’s unbridled support of the Saudi war effort in Yemen. These actions also drew heavy criticism from Democrats.
President-elect Joe Biden has called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and promised a strong hand in relations with the country, especially confronting Riyadh over its human rights abuses.
The Trump years were a golden period in some ways for the Saudis, as the GOP administration pivoted the U.S. sharply toward Riyadh by pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear agreement. The administration’s aggressively anti-Iran policies also led to a military strike that killed the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Saudi Arabia, which saw the Obama administration’s negotiations with Tehran as an unwanted overture, is expecting a more tense relationship with Biden’s team. It already is working to calm choppy waters between Washington and Riyadh, with the expected release of a prominent women’s rights activist and a possible rapprochement over its blockade of Qatar, which is home to one of the headquarters of U.S. Central Command at the Al Udeid Air Base.
“They have no friends here,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has advised both Republican and Democratic administrations on U.S. policy in the Middle East. “Congress is hostile, the Trump administration is on its way out, the Biden administration has made clear what its views are.”
Saudi Arabia in March is expected to release the prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.
Arrested in 2018 on terrorism charges, al-Hathloul was sentenced to nearly six years in prison on Monday on charges human rights groups criticize as politically motivated. But the terms of her sentence leave open the possibility of an early release.
“I do not think this is a coincidence,” Hussain Ibish, senior resident scholar with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said of the sentence.
Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted that the sentence was “unjust and troubling” and that “the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur.”
Saudi Arabia also looks to be taking steps to resolve its four-year blockade of Qatar, which emerged as a result of Riyadh’s frustration with Doha’s relations with Tehran.
Saudi King Salman on Wednesday reportedly invited Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to the Jan. 5 meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in what was seen as an effort to begin to resolve the dispute.
“I think that’s something that would appeal very much to the Biden administration,” Ibish said. “I don’t think they want to inherit the Qatar boycott.”
The Saudis are skeptical that the Biden administration will be Obama 2.0, with many of the same faces from the previous Democratic administration returning to various roles.
This includes Sullivan, who was the lead negotiator in the initial talks that led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of State. Blinken served as Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president and was deputy secretary of State between 2015 and 2017.
Blinken, in particular, is considered part of a younger generation of foreign policy advisers who served in the Obama administration and supported former President Obama’s push for democratic change in the Middle East.
And while Biden has said he will “reassess” the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, he has signaled he is looking more to restore balance on the world stage rather than take on a revolutionary policy shift.
The Biden transition team said it was not in a place to comment beyond what the president-elect said on the campaign trail and pointed to his past comments addressing the U.S. and Saudi relationship.
Biden issued a statement in October on the second anniversary of Khashoggi’s killing, saying the Biden-Harris administration would reassess the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and end Washington’s support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. He also expressed support for Saudi activists, dissidents and journalists, saying the U.S. will not “check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”
Tamara Cofman Wittes, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said that reassessment is necessary to counter the culture of impunity Saudi Arabia operated in under the Trump administration while also reflecting a changed world.
“The changes in global energy markets mean that the role of Saudi Arabia in global oil prices is not as dominant as it once was,” she said. “The Middle East overall is less central to American global strategy.”
“But you can’t take relationships for granted in general and I think that’s true here,” she added.
This includes reports of the Saudi government attempting to kidnap one of its critics on U.S. soil and FBI assessments that the Kingdom uses its diplomatic facilities to help Saudi citizens escape prosecution in American courts. In November 2019, two former Twitter employees and a Saudi national were charged by the Justice Department for acting as illegal agents of a foreign government.
“This desire for reassessment is perhaps triggered by some of the very troubling Saudi behavior that we’ve seen over the last few years, but it’s also driven by these trends that really can’t be ignored,” said Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs in the Obama administration.
Riyadh holds a key bargaining chip with the Biden administration over whether to open relations with Israel, following the Trump administration’s brokering of diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
While Saudi Arabia maintains quiet security ties with Israel in the face of Iran, and has taken small steps to soften relations — such as opening air space to Israeli commercial flights — it has so far held off on fully opening ties over Saudi King Salman’s commitment to the Palestinians.
“If and when — I suspect it’s a question of when — the Saudis decide to take another step toward normalization with Israel, they will see … this as a way to energize their very low relationship with what they anticipate is an incoming Biden administration,” said Miller, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The U.S. and Saudi relationship is considered a fraught but necessary alliance, based on shared goals over shared values, said Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute.
This includes the U.S. needing relations with Saudi Arabia as part of broader alliances to counter global ambitions by China, destabilizing activities by Russia and maintaining stability in the Middle East.
Riyadh, for its part, needs the security provided by the U.S. as a global power to ensure its own national integrity.
“For the U.S., it really is global politics at its highest level,” Ibish said. “The two countries are stuck with each other.”
—Updated at 2:50 p.m.