The Biden administration has said it expects Saudi Arabia to “change its approach” to the US and signalled that it wants to minimise any direct contact between the president and the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The stance marks an abrupt change compared with the Trump administration, which showered the young heir with attention and praise. It comes as intelligence officials are preparing to release – possibly as early as next week – a declassified report to Congress that will describe its assessment of the crown prince’s alleged culpability in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the US-based Washington Post journalist who was killed by Saudi officials in 2018.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, this week said Joe Biden intended to “recalibrate” the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, and considered King Salman – not Prince Mohammed – to be his counterpart. While the designation might technically be true, the 35-year-old prince is widely seen as running Saudi Arabia and has direct relations with other foreign leaders.
In Washington, the question now is whether the latest remark merely represented a symbolic snub, or whether it was more significant, and suggested the US was trying to exert pressure on the king to change the line of succession and demote Prince Mohammed.
In response to a question about whether the administration was seeking to press for such a change, a state department spokesperson said Saudi Arabia was a key partner on “many priorities” but that the partnership needed to “reflect and be respectful of the values and interests the US brings to that partnership”.
“The American people expect that US policy towards its strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia prioritises the rule of law and respect for human rights. Accordingly, the United States will cooperate with Saudi Arabia where our priorities align and will not shy away from defending US interests and values where they do not,” the spokesperson said.
The person added: “President Biden has also said he would want to hear how Saudi Arabia intends to change its approach to work with the new US administration, and we look forward to those discussions to shape the future of our relationship.”
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Biden was sending a clear message to the Saudi royal family that as long as “MBS” – as the crown prince is known – was in the line of succession, Saudi Arabia would be treated “as a pariah”.
“I don’t know what the administration is thinking but the best outcome would be [for Saudi Arabia] to remove him. He can retire to his chateaeu in France,” Riedel said.
Other analysts said it was more likely the administration was seeking to demote and de-emphasise the relationship, even as it has made clear that it has a partnership with the kingdom. Biden used his first foreign policy speech to announce that the US would end…
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