By: Nathaniel Ballantyne
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi and got away with murder. His government bombed and killed civilians in Yemen and jailed Saudi activists for exercising their right to speak. For the last four years, President Trump’s close relationship with the Prince meant that he is untouchable.
Now, Joe Biden, is the new president-elect, so there is a new Sheriff in town. The Prince and his Government are bracing for a new American leader who has vowed to end support for the Yemen war, penalize human rights violations, and treat Saudi Arabia like “the pariah that they are.”
“It is past time to restore a sense of balance, perspective, and fidelity to our values in our relationships in the Middle East,” President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. told the Council on Foreign Relations last year when asked about Saudi Arabia. “We will make clear that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.”
The difference in tone is stark, and Prince Mohammed may have to accept that unless he changes his ways, he is unlikely to be as welcome at the White House as he was under Mr. Trump. Experts said they did not expect a break with the kingdom, but pressure from a Biden administration could push Riyadh to temper its more reckless behavior.
“There are a lot of reasons for this relationship to continue — it has a lot of value for both sides — but it simply cannot continue in the way it has for the last four years,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “There have been a series of violations of the rules between friendly governments, a violation of norms.”
Saudi officials have played down the exceptional ties between Mr. Trump and the kingdom, instead emphasizing the nearly eight decades of cooperation between countries.
“Our relationship is far deeper than just one Saudi leader or one American president,” Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, said in a video address to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations on Wednesday. Saudi Arabia will host the virtual Group of 20 summit in Riyadh this weekend — make it an important American partner, she said.
“As our economic, social, and cultural reforms strengthen the kingdom, we’ll be even better positioned as the most dependable U.S. ally in the region,” she said.
Mr. Biden could find that he needs Saudi Arabia to help build regional support for a new Iran strategy, stabilize oil markets, or restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. A Saudi offer to normalize relations with Israel could provide leverage to get concessions for the Palestinians and raise the kingdom’s standing in Washington, although Saudi and Israeli officials have said such a step is not imminent.
Mr. Trump’s presidency has tracked closely with the rise of Prince Mohammed, 35, whose father, King Salman, ascended the Saudi throne in 2015 and gave his son oversight of the government’s most important portfolios, including defense, oil and economic policies.
Prince Mohammed became crown prince in 2017 and cultivated a close relationship with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, often meeting him privately in Saudi Arabia and exchanging messages on WhatsApp.
Prince Mohammed has overseen a turbulent period, pushing for vast social and economic changes at home while plunging Saudi forces into Yemen’s civil war, joining a blockade on Qatar, forcing the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister and locking up businessmen, clerics and activists.
His international standing took a beating when Saudi agents killed Mr. Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, a crime the C.I.A. said Prince Mohammed had likely ordered. Prince Mohammed has denied ordering the killing or having any prior knowledge of it.
Last year, the Justice Department accused two Saudi men of spying for the Saudi government while employees for Twitter.
Through it all, Mr. Trump refrained from criticizing Saudi Arabia while supporting it in ways that alarmed officials in other government branches. He applauded the blockade of Qatar, which hosts a large American air base. He vetoed a bipartisan resolution that would have ended American support for the Yemen war. He said it did not matter whether Prince Mohammed had ordered Mr. Khashoggi’s killing because the Saudis opposed Iran and bought lots of American weapons.
None of it shook Mr. Trump’s commitment to the kingdom as a reliable partner against Iran and a significant purchaser of American weapons. The Saudi government and Prince Bin Slaman will have to curb their behavior if they want the support of the American government.
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