What’s Behind Biden’s High-Stakes Recalibration on Saudi Arabia?
If Mohammed bin Salman continues to hold sway in Saudi Arabia, and U.S. strategic reliance on the country remains unchanged, then encouraging Saudi Arabia to end its long-standing practice of human rights abuse is just empty talk.
U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East during the Trump administration is often criticized as having double standards. On the one hand, Trump abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran was in full compliance with the JCPOA. On the other, Trump did not impose any punishment on Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, despite the open secret that the CIA concluded that he approved the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. Although Joe Biden, the new U.S. president, attempted new measures to right this wrong, his gestures fell short of the direct punitive measures towards MBS that were hoped for by human rights advocates. Ultimately, Biden was caught between defending human rights and maintaining U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. While these moves might be justified, the inherent risks should not be downplayed.
Biden contrasted heavily with Trump’s stance on Saudi Arabia by vowing to take a tougher line; describing Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state on the U.S. presidential campaign trail. After his inauguration, Biden went on a bid to show that his statements were not empty promises. For instance, less than a month into his administration, Biden withdrew U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in the war with Yemen by pausing arms sales. Then, on 26 February, the White House declassified a CIA report confirming MBS did indeed approve the operation that led to the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Subsequently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued the “Khashoggi Ban” on seventy-six unnamed Saudis and their families. It is speculated that the Saudi deputy intelligence chief and the core members of the Rapid Intervention Force, MBS’ personal protective team which executed Khashoggi’s killing, were on the sanctions list.
Values and interests in tension
Nevertheless, there was still criticism from many human rights advocates and even members of Biden’s own Democratic Party as the measures effectively allowed the person behind the killing to avoid any repercussions. Worse, the Biden administration made little effort to guarantee that they would attempt to prevent such human rights violations from happening again.
The Biden administration defended their decision by highlighting that the U.S. government seldom imposes sanctions on leaders whose state still holds normal diplomatic relations with the United States, with Saudi Arabia being no exception. Second, they emphasized that U.S.-Saudi relations would be “recalibrated” rather than “ruptured,” implying that sanctioning MBS would disproportionately punish Saudi Arabia. Third, although not directly sanctioned, the United States has pointed out that they have sidelined MBS; Biden has refused to take his calls and denied the crown prince access to the White House in the short term. Instead, before the disclosure of the intelligence report and the announcement of the “Khashoggi Ban,” which was an embarrassment to Saudi Arabia, Biden directly communicated with MBS’ father, the eighty-five-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
It was generally believed that Biden intended the United States to take the moral high ground, while keeping in mind that directly sanctioning MBS would harm its strategic interests in the region; especially as the United States relies on Saudi Arabia to counter Iran’s continued expansion, stabilize global oil prices, and share intelligence information to combat terrorism. Harsher punishment could very well drive Saudi Arabia into the arms of China and Russia.
Some commentators offered a much more detailed justification of Biden’s change in policy towards Saudi Arabia. For example, an article published on March 10, 2021, by Martin Indyk, a Distinguished Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in the Clinton administration, highlights that the “Khashoggi Ban” is a de facto travel ban on MBS, since he would not dare visit the United States without the close security of his personal protection team.
Indyk further emphasizes how the Biden administration has downgraded its communication channels with MBS. In contrast to the Trump administration, which allowed direct contact between MBS and Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law, the Biden administration instead assigned Secretary of Defense Lloyd James Austin III as the point of contact. This was a telling gesture as it lowered MBS to the level of defense minister rather than continuing to consider him as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. Although critics had hoped to see the complete isolation of MBS through direct sanctions, Indyk recognized the practical difficulties of achieving such retributive justice would be extremely high.
Pressuring Saudi Arabia won’t end the war in Yemen
Indyk went on to state, however, that Biden’s policy shift is still not enough to push the conservative kingdom towards the introduction of fundamental human rights reforms, despite its decision to release from prison the famous feminist activist Loujain al-Hathloul on February 10, 2021, under the condition of five-year travel ban and of serving probation for three years. He believed that the United States should play a key role in pressuring Saudi Arabia to continue its reforms, within the bounds of moral pragmatism. Indyk argues that preventing Saudi Arabia from launching further attacks against civilians in the war in Yemen is also of paramount importance. With Saudi Arabia having “misused” U.S. military support for years, Indyk, along with other commentators, has urged the United States to assume the responsibility of stopping Saudi Arabia’s atrocities in Yemen.
To a degree, withdrawing support for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen by pausing arms sales is a step in the right direction. However, the effectiveness of these actions is questionable, and with Saudi Arabia’s large stockpile of weapons, an end to the war seems unlikely in the short term. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is not the sole perpetrator in the war; Iranian-backed Houthis also frequently launch indiscriminate attacks in Yemen and obstruct humanitarian aid from reaching civilians. As such, it is hard to imagine the crisis being resolved in the foreseeable future if Biden only puts pressure on Saudi Arabia and fails to prevent Iran from illegally smuggling arms in support of the Houthis.
Ultimately, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have been responsible for human rights abuses for many years, with the war in Yemen being just the tip of the iceberg. It is evident that Biden hopes to reverse the negative legacy of Trump’s Middle East policy. Nonetheless, if MBS continues to hold sway in Saudi Arabia, and U.S. strategic reliance on the country remains unchanged, then encouraging Saudi Arabia to end its long-standing practice of human rights abuse is just empty talk. At worst, Biden’s recalibration of Saudi policy will both fail to appease the human rights community and increase mutual suspicion in U.S.-Saudi relations, which would further place strategic partnership under strain.
T-Fai Yeung is a researcher at the Global Studies Institute Hong Kong, a blogger for Stand News, and a guest contributor to the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Apple Daily, and Linhe Zaobao (Singapore). The Chinese version of this article was published in Linhe Zaobao (Singapore) on 9 April 2021. This version has been translated by Cynthia Chung, who graduated from The University of Hong Kong with a Bachelor of Journalism and a Bachelor of Sociology, and wishes to contribute to human rights advocacy. The views expressed in this article belong solely to the author.