GP Insights

GP Insights # 477, 28 February 2021

The US and Saudi Arabia: President Biden's new approach towards Saudia Arabia
Jeshil Samuel

What happened?
On 25 February, US President Joe Biden made an important phone call to the King of Saudi Arabia - Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, discussing the bilateral relationship between their countries. 

On 26 February, the CIA released its intelligence report on the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, an American citizen and a Washington Post journalist. The report was released after the US Congress passed a law in 2020 that mandated intelligence agencies to disclose their findings to the public. The report establishes the role of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and his close aides in the assassination. 

What is the background?
First, the shift in the Biden administration to the US-Saudi relationship. Unlike his predecessor, President Biden is looking forward to a more transparent and accountable relationship with Saudi Arabia. The US had blocked its sale of weapons and logistics to the Saudi-led coalition on 4 February in an attempt to bring an end to the conflict in Yemen. Thus, the call between President Biden and Saudi’s King was a recalibration for the bilateral ties between the two countries.

Second, the official American response to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the White House-MBS relationship. The killing has been perceived as a terrible blow to US-Saudi relations since 2018. However, the Trump administration did not give due importance to the investigation of the assassination as it wanted a better relationship with Saudi Arabia. More importantly, it did not want to upset its relationship with the MBS. The new President seems to be pursuing a different path - towards Saudi Arabia and MBS. With the CIA’s report released now, the Biden administration has blocked the visas of more than seventy Saudi nationals involved in controlling public dissent against the Saudi crown. This should be seen as a beginning.

What does this mean?
Biden has been a stern advocate of human rights in the Middle East and has pressed its allies to ensure the freedoms and rights of their citizens. The release of the CIA’s report shows that the US is taking a more definite step in curbing the censorship and human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. The sanctions slammed on all twenty-one members responsible for Khashoggi’s assassination in the report, excluding the crown prince, shows America’s need to maintain its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Any criminal charges or sanctions against the Prince by the US would bring a stain on the relationship between both countries. 

The need for the US to keep its ties in the Middle East, especially with Saudi Arabia is crucial. The Biden administration’s reset in foreign policy towards the Middle East comes at a time when the US has to act cautiously. With Iran and the JCPOA on one side and the conflict in Yemen on another, the role of the US could prove pivotal in bringing stability to the region.

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