President Joe Biden is expected to speak in the coming days with 85-year-old King Salman, the official ruler of Saudi Arabia. That begs the question: Will Biden ever talk to the guy who actually runs the country?
Whether and how to engage that powerful figure, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is among the thorniest diplomatic dilemmas facing Biden and his aides, one that exemplifies how hard it will be to keep their promises to promote both human rights and America’s national interest on the world stage.
The de facto Saudi leader, whose titles include defense minister, is scorned in much of Washington due to his role in the Yemen war, his alleged ordering of the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi and his crackdowns on perceived political enemies. Many rights activists want the United States to impose economic sanctions on him personally, a movement that may gain steam if the Biden team keeps its promise to release a long-secret report on the Khashoggi killing.
Crown Prince Mohammed’s central role was a reality accepted by former President Donald Trump, who, citing U.S. arms sales to the Saudis, embraced the crown prince even after the Khashoggi murder, shielding him from sanctions and other punishment. Given that the crown prince is only in his mid-30s, he’s arguably the very future of Saudi Arabia itself. Can the Biden administration afford to ignore him?
Some former U.S. officials as well as Saudi and American analysts say the Biden team has no choice but to directly engage the young royal, who is often referred to as “MBS,” if it wants to accomplish goals such as ending the war in Yemen and constraining Iran’s nuclear program.
“They can’t get anything done if they don’t deal with MBS,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi businessman with links to the royal family. “The king is functioning, but he’s very old. He’s very much chairman of the board. He’s not involved in day-to-day issues. Eventually, they’re going to want to be talking directly to MBS.”
Others stress that, barring the sudden death of the monarch, there’s no rush, and that any U.S. engagement with the crown prince should be zero to minimal or indirect.
“The Biden administration shouldn’t engage MBS until they answer a longer list of questions about what’s best for U.S. interests and values and how they seek to reset the relationship” with Saudi Arabia, said Brian Katulis, a scholar with the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
The White House, for now, seems to be intent on letting diplomatic formalities delay the inevitable issue.
On Tuesday, in discussing the relationship with Riyadh, White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointedly noted that Biden’s counterpart is King Salman, not the crown prince. Asked if anyone with the National Security Council, whose top staffers include experienced Mideast hand Brett McGurk, had engaged the crown prince, a spokesperson said: “Don’t have anything to share, but thanks for checking.”
Tweaking the Riyadh relationship
Biden and his aides, who are closing in on their first month in office, have already moved to recalibrate U.S. ties with Riyadh.
They have announced a reduction in already limited U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, while promising to help the Saudis bolster their defenses against Yemen’s Houthi rebels and their backers in Iran, the country that Saudis see as the real threat. Biden also named veteran diplomat Tim Lenderking as a special envoy focused on bringing the war in Yemen to an end.
Biden aides have suspended some arms sales and transfers to the Saudis, casting that as part of a review normal for any new administration. They’ve also reversed the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group, citing the legal difficulty that label posed for aid organizations who have to deal with the Houthis to deliver food and other assistance to desperate Yemeni civilians.
Still, when asked if anyone in the administration has engaged directly with the Saudi crown prince, or whether they intend to, officials are evasive.
State Department spokespersons would not answer the question on the record or on background, although one offered a generic statement that sidestepped the topic. The State Department has publicly released two readouts of calls that Secretary of State Antony Blinken held with his counterpart, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan. The two men discussed the crisis in Yemen and human rights among an array of topics.
If any Biden administration official has cause to speak to the Saudi crown prince, it’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who, after all, would be talking to his direct counterpart. When pressed on Austin’s plans, a Pentagon spokesperson said only, “Secretary Austin has not yet had an opportunity to speak with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”
Lenderking visited Saudi Arabia last week after being named a special envoy for the Yemen conflict. According to publicly available information, he met with the Saudi deputy defense minister, Khalid bin Salman, as well as the foreign minister. (The State Department on Tuesday pressed the Houthis to come to the negotiating table to end the Yemen war, while warning the rebel group to “cease all military advances and refrain from other destabilizing and potentially lethal actions, including cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia.”)
On one hand, it’s not as if U.S. officials have a hard and fast rule about not engaging with foreign leaders of ill-repute. Biden has already spoken to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whom the U.S. accuses of everything from poisoning rivals to interfering in American elections. Biden also has chatted with China’s Xi Jinping, whom he has accused of genocide against Uighur Muslims.
What makes the Saudi situation in some ways more awkward is that the country is technically a close U.S. partner, not a nuclear-armed rival impossible to ignore.
Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Reversing the Trump Middle East agenda
Trump and his top aides were far more open about their willingness to deal with the crown prince — even after October 2018, when a team of Saudi operatives killed Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi apparently had irked Crown Prince Mohammed after raising questions about growing political repression in Saudi Arabia.
But that November, in one of the most extraordinary statements of his four years in office (it began with “The world is a very dangerous place!”) Trump dismissed concerns about the crown prince’s role in Khashoggi’s death, arguing that what mattered more was the U.S. relationship with the Saudis, the arms sales involved and the need to put up a united front against Iran.
“It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said along the way.
The Trump statement was, at its core, a reflection of his approach to the Middle East, which put huge emphasis on the Iranian threat and sought to improve the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner reportedly would exchange WhatsApp messages with the crown prince. Saudi Arabia also was the first foreign country Trump visited as president. And in the months prior to the Khashoggi murder, which outraged Republicans and Democrats alike, the crown prince took his own tour of the United States, meeting bigwigs in Silicon Valley and Washington, including Trump in the Oval Office.
Crown Prince Mohammed particularly impressed many U.S. officials because of his avowed willingness to rein in his country’s conservative Islamic establishment while giving ordinary Saudis more cultural and economic freedoms, including allowing women to drive. And while Riyadh hasn’t signed on to the diplomatic normalization agreements with Israel called the Abraham Accords, it appears to have quietly blessed countries such as Bahrain who have joined the agreements.
But all of these changes, however profound, have come with more internal political repression in Saudi Arabia, including crackdowns on the crown prince’s potential rivals for power as well as women’s rights activists.
Even if he becomes king, Crown Prince Mohammed is unlikely to get special treatment during Biden’s tenure. In fact, he could face economic sanctions.
Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, has promised to release an unclassified report on Khashoggi’s death that Trump had withheld from Congress. The report’s release could happen in days or weeks.
Past reporting has indicated that U.S. intelligence officials concluded that the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s killing. If the unclassified document Haines has pledged to release includes that determination, it could bolster efforts by human rights groups to hold the crown prince accountable through sanctions and other means. The Trump administration sanctioned other Saudis blamed in the murder, but it did not go after Crown Prince Mohammed.
Among those most eagerly awaiting Haines’ release of the report are people involved with Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a watchdog-like group Khashoggi had taken steps to launch shortly before he died.
“President Biden should not have any illusions about MBS’s reckless and cruel autocratic governance, and the U.S. should stop propping him up,” said Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at DAWN. “Rather than engaging directly with MBS, the Biden administration should make the suspension of weapons sales permanent and should release all documents relating to the crimes of MBS.”
Saudi overtures to the new administration?
There are signs that the kingdom is calibrating its own approach toward the United States now that Biden is in charge.
Saudi officials recently released from prison Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights activist who had been held for nearly three years. Hathloul had been detained along with several other women’s rights activists in a sweep that mystified even some who have backed many of the crown prince’s reform efforts.
The Saudis also have provisionally released two U.S. citizens who’d been held on questionable charges, according to media reports.
So long as King Salman lives, he can act a “buffer” for a Biden administration that would prefer not to deal with the heir apparent, said Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. She described Salman as “an alternative power center in Saudi Arabia — after all he is the king.”
There’s no sign whatsoever that King Salman intends to reshuffle the order of succession to his throne. There are, however, signs that the king’s health is not in the best condition.
Biden and his aides may want to start thinking about some formal outreach to the crown prince.
“Where is the sweet spot? There may not be one,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. “At some point, you may have to suck it up and make a decision that you’re going to have to talk to the guy because you may not have much choice.”
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