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Biden shifts approach to Saudi leaders

Biden shifts approach to Saudi leaders
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President BidenJoe BidenBiden 'disappointed' in Senate parliamentarian ruling but 'respects' decision Taylor Swift celebrates House passage of Equality Act Donald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' MORE is shifting the U.S. approach to Saudi Arabia by turning away from the priority diplomatic access given to certain Saudi officials during the Trump administration, which gave the kingdom a prominent role in America’s Middle East policy.

Biden is expected to speak at some point with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, signaling a downgrade in relations with the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, an outsize figure on the world stage.

The pointed emphasis that Biden will communicate with the Saudi king, a move described by White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBiden 'disappointed' in Senate parliamentarian ruling but 'respects' decision CORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report The Memo: Biden faces first major setback as Tanden teeters MORE as an effort to “recalibrate” the relationship between Washington and Riyadh, indicates the president is taking steps toward his commitment to more forcefully confront Riyadh over its human rights abuses while still working together on shared goals.

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“There’s a tone and a substance shift,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Not 180 degrees — I still think they’re trying to figure out precisely how to define this — but there is clearly a reassessment underway.”

The crown prince played a prominent role in the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East, reportedly exchanging WhatsApp messages with former White House senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerBiden to speak with Saudi king 'soon' as pressure builds for Khashoggi report Biden to speak with Saudi king ahead of Khashoggi report: report Former Trump officials eye bids for political office MORE, helping pave the way for the Abraham Accords, opening relations between Israel and Gulf and African nations.

But the crown prince also alienated Washington over his alleged role in ordering the killing and dismemberment of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in October 2018.

Trump notably downplayed the crown prince’s role in Khashoggi’s killing in an effort to maintain strong bilateral ties, writing in an extraordinary statement that “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” have knowledge of the plot against the journalist who wrote for The Washington Post.

Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril HainesAvril HainesSenate confirms former Michigan governor Granholm as Energy secretary Biden says he has read report on Khashoggi murder Biden to speak with Saudi king 'soon' as pressure builds for Khashoggi report MORE, has committed to declassifying the U.S. intelligence report on Khashoggi’s death that reportedly concluded Crown Prince Mohammed personally ordered the killing.

Biden administration officials have welcomed the Abraham Accords from the Trump era as a positive development, but already taken steps to roll back U.S. support for Saudi actions viewed as contributing to human rights atrocities.

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“We know that Saudi [Arabia] is an important partner on many different fronts; regional security, counterterrorism are just two of them,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday.

“At the same time, the strategic partnership needs to reflect and be respectful of the values that we bring to the table as well as our interests — and the American people expect U.S. policy toward Riyadh prioritizes the rule of law, respect for human rights.”

Biden has put human rights at the forefront of his foreign policy agenda, ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive in neighboring Yemen and terminating relevant arms sales.

His decision to reverse a last-minute move by the Trump administration to label Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis as a terrorist organization was welcomed by advocacy groups as stepping back from the brink of a catastrophic humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

There is also bipartisan support in Congress to hold Saudi Arabia more accountable over its human rights abuses, such as Khashoggi’s murder and the civilian death toll and humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Democrats have further called on Biden to confront Riyadh over allegations the Saudi government helped its citizens accused of crimes in the U.S. flee the country to avoid justice.

“The Saudi government has really given its critics a lot to work with,” said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, “and even people who support the relationship have to say the Saudi government has to do better, particularly on human rights.”

Riyadh was bracing for a tougher stance from the Biden administration. On the campaign trail, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and promised a stronger hand in relations.

The kingdom took a number of steps that regional experts viewed as attempting to get out in front of criticisms from the Biden administration. Last month, Riyadh eased the blockade on Qatar that was imposed at the beginning of the Trump administration.

Saudi’s treatment of arrested activists is also gaining attention as gestures of goodwill from the kingdom. This includes the decision last month to reduce the prison sentence of jailed Saudi American physician Walid al-Fitaihi and the release of Saudi Americans Bader al-Ibrahim and Salah al-Haider pending their trial. Human rights groups have criticized their detentions as efforts to stifle speech that is critical of Saudi policies.

Additionally, prominent women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from a Saudi prison after being convicted on terrorism charges. Critics said her more than 1,000-day detainment was politically motivated, and al-Hathloul reportedly told her family that she suffered torture and sexual abuse.

Other moves include efforts by Riyadh to edit its school textbooks and learning materials to remove positive references to religious violence, extremism and intolerance, particularly anti-Semitism. The kingdom most recently announced judicial reforms to codify its laws more in line with international standards.

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“I think it’s the Saudi way of saying, ‘We still value the relationship’ ” with the U.S., Satloff said, adding that the Biden administration and Saudi Arabia are "inching toward having, what I like to think, is a thorough, discreet dialogue about this.”

On issues of shared interest, the Biden administration is reinforcing its commitment to Riyadh’s defense capabilities in the face of cross-border attacks launched by the Houthis.

“We’re not going to allow Saudi Arabia to be target practice,” U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking told reporters on Tuesday.

The administration has prioritized resolving the conflict in Yemen and boxing in Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon as its most pressing, primary foreign policy concerns — areas where Saudi Arabia is a central and invested partner.

“Maintaining good relations with Gulf countries is really important to make the other policies work,” Ibish, of the Gulf Institute, said.

“On both scores the Saudis are going to be key players — key direct players in Yemen and key indirect players in Iran.”

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Relations between Washington and Riyadh were tense during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, over what the Saudis viewed as being blindsided by the U.S. pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Regional experts say that the Biden administration is not likely to make the same mistake of freezing Riyadh out of discussions.

“We had a secret negotiation with Iran outside the purview of regional allies, those days are gone,” Satloff said. 

“I think we want to have a negotiation where we are fully consulting with our regional allies and they are on board as much as we can get them on board.”