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One of the biggest losers among foreign leaders in Vice President Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. The de facto ruler and heir apparent of the Kingdom came to depend on President Trump for protection against a Congress thoroughly disenchanted with his impetuous actions. Biden has threatened to turn Mohammed into a global “pariah” for his role in the murder of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and promised to “reassess” the entire U.S.-Saudi relationship.

If the president-elect carries out these steps, it will almost certainly cause a winter in personal relations between the American president and the Saudi ruler, traditionally a key factor in the overall wellbeing of the 75-year U.S.-Saudi relationship. It could also lead to a long-avoided confrontation, particularly if Biden carries out his promise to make promotion of human rights and democracy in the Middle East a centerpiece of his foreign policy.  

Biden has already forewarned MBS of a 180-degree shift in the White House’s attitude toward him and the Saudi kingdom.

Trump helped the crown prince, or MBS as he is commonly called, to best his rivals for succession to the Saudi throne in June 2017. Plus, the President boosted his standing internationally by making Riyadh his first trip abroad after he entered the White House. It was Trump who bragged in an interview with Bob Woodward for his latest book, Rage that he had “saved his ass” from the ire of Congress after the CIA concluded MBS had indeed ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Trump called it a “rogue operation” and refused to implicate the crown or give Congress a formal U.S. assessment of responsibility for the brutal murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.  Nor has Trump criticized MBS for locking up scores of Saudi activists, including women activists still held in prison for demanding the right to drive long before he decreed it himself.

Biden has already forewarned MBS of a 180-degree shift in the White House’s attitude toward him and the Saudi kingdom. He issued a statement on the second anniversary of Khashoggi’s death in which he promised, “to reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” He added, “I will defend the rights of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence. Jamal’s death will not be in vain.”

There are other reasons for predicting an estrangement between Biden and MBS. In his plan to renew America’s world leadership, Biden has committed to hold a global “Summit for Democracy” during his first year in office. Among his stated objectives is to confront authoritarian regimes and promote elections and human rights. His summit would also include civil rights groups fighting for democracy, presumably including the one Khashoggi was in the process of establishing when he was killed —Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), recently relaunched in Washington.

Yet another reason for predicting a colder U.S.-Saudi relationship under Biden is the president-elect’s declared intent to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement

Biden has said one outcome of his summit will be a “call to action” to the U.S. private sector, particularly technology companies, to combat “the surveillance state.” While China is mentioned by name, Saudi Arabia under MBS has also established such a regime that tracks down and silences his critics abroad, even inside the United States. Khashoggi had gone into self-imposed exile outside Washington, D.C. while he wrote critical opinion pieces about MBS’s policies for the Washington Post.

Yet another reason for predicting a colder U.S.-Saudi relationship under Biden is the president-elect’s declared intent to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement from which Trump pulled out in May 2018, calling it “the worst deal ever.” Former President Barak Obama never consulted the Saudis on the deal and called upon Saudi Arabia to “share the neighborhood” with Iran, its main rival for regional primacy. Thus Saudi rulers were delighted when Trump withdrew from the pact in May 2018. They were even more delighted to see him launch his “maximum pressure” campaign of economic and financial sanctions on Iran in a bid to force it to re-negotiate the terms of the nuclear deal and curb its expansionist activities in the Arab world. 

Whether Biden’s strident talk in defense of democracy will translate into action or be overtaken by realpolitik remains to be seen. This happened before in the White House. Former Republican President George W. Bush started out with equally verbal enthusiasm for promoting democracy during his first term in office as part of his in his “war on terrorism.” He propounded a “freedom agenda” for the Middle East and pledged to support “the brave men and women” fighting for free speech, democracy and women’s rights there. He described the Middle East as “a place of tyranny and despair and anger” and called specifically on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to lead the way in pursuit of greater democracy and free elections.  

Biden may also discover he cannot afford to carry through on his own freedom agenda.

The results were startling. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections and Wahhabi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia dominated municipal elections both held in 2005 in response to Bush’s entreaties. The following year, the Palestinian Hamas faction, dedicated to the destruction of Israel, emerged the victor of parliamentary elections in Gaza. Israel canceled the elections and Bush went silent on his freedom agenda.

Biden may also discover he cannot afford to carry through on his own freedom agenda. It could jeopardize the sale of tens of billions of dollars of American arms to Saudi Arabia, the largest foreign client of the U.S. military industry. It could convince Saudi rulers to turn instead to Russia and China for their most advanced arms and security, ending their dependence on the United States for both after 75 years.  But his pledge to isolate Crown Prince Mohammed internationally and promote political and human rights in his kingdom is enough to create a serious rethink in both capitals that could well result in a fundamentally different relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

David Ottaway image

David Ottaway

Middle East Fellow;
Middle East Specialist and Former Washington Post Correspondent
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more