BEIRUT, Lebanon – Over the past four years, President Trump’s close ties with Saudi Arabia have meant that there was apparently nothing his de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, could do to deserve a reprimand from the White House.
Saudi bombs killed civilians in Yemen, Saudi activists went to jail, and Saudi agents dismembered Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. None of this has shaken Mr. Trump’s commitment to the kingdom as a reliable partner against Iran and a major buyer of American arms.
Saudi Arabia is now preparing for the arrival of a new US leader who has pledged to end his support for the Yemen war, sanction human rights violations and treat Saudi Arabia like “The outcast she is”.
“It is high time to restore a sense of balance, perspective and loyalty to our values in our relations in the Middle East,” President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. told the Council on Foreign last year. Relations, when asked about Saudi Arabia. “We will make it clear that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.”
The difference in tone is striking, and Prince Mohammed may have to accept that unless he changes his ways, he is unlikely to be as welcome in the White House as he was under Mr Trump. Experts have said they don’t expect a break with the kingdom, but pressure from a Biden administration could push Riyadh to temper its more reckless behavior.
“There are many reasons for this relationship to continue – it is very valuable to both parties – but it just cannot continue the way it has for the past four years,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Middle East Policy Center. “There has been a series of rule violations between friendly governments, a violation of standards.”
Saudi officials have played down the exceptional ties between Mr. Trump and the kingdom, instead emphasizing nearly eight decades of cooperation between the countries.
“Our relationship runs much deeper than just a Saudi leader or a US president,” Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, Saudi ambassador to Washington, said on Wednesday in a video address to the National Council on US Relations. Arabs.
Saudi Arabia’s regional powerhouse and growing global prominence – it will host the virtual Group of 20 summit in Riyadh this weekend – make it an important US partner, she said.
“As our economic, social and cultural reforms strengthen the kingdom, we will be even better positioned as the most trusted US ally in the region,” she said.
Mr Biden may find that he needs Saudi Arabia to help build regional support for a new Iranian strategy, to stabilize oil markets or to help revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. A Saudi offer to normalize relations with Israel could provide leverage to secure concessions for the Palestinians and elevate the kingdom’s position in Washington, although Saudi and Israeli officials have said such a move is not imminent.
Mr. Trump’s presidency has closely followed the rise of Prince Mohammed, 35, whose father, King Salman, ascended to the Saudi throne in 2015 and put his son in charge of overseeing the country’s most important portfolios. government, including defense, oil and economic policies.
Prince Mohammed became Crown Prince in 2017 and has cultivated a close relationship with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, often meeting him privately in Saudi Arabia and exchanging messages on WhatsApp.
His international reputation was battered when Saudi agents killed Mr Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, a crime the CIA said Prince Mohammed likely ordered. Prime Muhammad denied ordering or knowing about the murder.
Last year, the Justice Department accused two Saudis of spying on behalf of the Saudi government as Twitter employees.
Through it all, Mr. Trump has refrained from criticizing Saudi Arabia while supporting it in a way that alarmed officials in other branches of government. He applauded the blockade of Qatar, which houses a major US air base; vetoed a bipartisan resolution that would have ended US support for the war in Yemen; and said it didn’t matter that Prince Mohammed ordered the murder of Mr. Khashoggi because the Saudis opposed Iran and bought a lot of American weapons.
Analysts said Mr. Trump’s backing had enabled Prince Mohammed’s riskier moves and that a new tone from the White House could have the opposite effect.
“I think Washington’s support emboldened him and took away a lot of the guardrails that should have been there,” said Rob Malley, chairman of the International Crisis Group. “Biden was very clear on Yemen, Iran and human rights. These are three areas where you are likely to see a change from the present. “
Officials for Mr Biden’s transition team declined to comment, unwilling to appear to be leading foreign policy while another president was still in charge.
In Yemen, the United States has helped Saudi Arabia and its allies with air-to-air refueling, intelligence and billions of dollars in arms sales. United Nations officials have called the war the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and Saudi airstrikes have killed scores of civilians and destroyed key infrastructure.
The Saudis accuse Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen of causing the crisis and stalling efforts to end the war.
“We will continue to support a political solution in Yemen, but we will always defend our national security,” said Princess Reema.
Saudi Arabia shared Mr. Trump’s deep animosity towards Iran and supported his withdrawal from the international nuclear deal negotiated under President Obama.
Mr Biden said he would join the deal as long as Iran also came back into compliance, although political realities in Iran and the United States could make it impossible to restore the original deal.
Princess Reema called for international pressure to get Iran to resume negotiations, but said the goal should be a more radical deal that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, stops its support for militant groups and put an end to “its destabilizing behavior in the region and in the world. . “
While Mr. Trump has chosen not to punish American partners for human rights abuses, Mr. Biden said Saudi Arabia would no longer have a “dangerous blank check” and that the United States United would “insist on responsible Saudi actions and impose consequences on those.” “
The position has raised hopes among associates of clergymen, activists, businessmen and royals who were detained during Prince Mohammed’s ascension that Mr Biden could pressure the kingdom to his release.
“I hope that Saudi officials realize that they need to restore their image and do things without waiting for no one to put pressure on them,” said Alia al-Hathloul, whose sister, Loujain al-Hathloul, is on trial in Saudi Arabia for human rights groups say they are supposed to punish her for her activism.
But Ali Shihabi, a Saudi writer and analyst, said US pressure on issues inside the kingdom would likely hit a wall with Prince Mohammed.
“In Saudi Arabia he has to be seen as strong and does not give in to Western pressure, otherwise it will weaken him on other fronts, where he is pushing through tough reforms,” Shihabi said. “Clearly Saudi Arabia would like to mend the relationship, but Riyadh understands it may take time.”