Biden and the Saudi conundrum

King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia (C) meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt (R) aboard the USS Quincy in Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, February 14, 1945.

The Joe Biden Administration is expected to release the Central Intelligence Agency report on the brutal murder of the prominent dissident and well-known journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the premises of the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. 

‘Top Secret’ documents implicating the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the horrific killing have found their way to the US media. The spate of leaks to the media suggests that the publication of the CIA report seems imminent. 

The Crown Prince may figure as the central figure in the murder of Khashoggi. There’s a shake-up in store for Saudi Arabia. The diplomatic putdown will have consequences for US politics and Saudi relations. 

Biden is riding the wave of domestic opinion, as Saudi Arabia is a toxic subject among US elites. Even those who ate out of Saudi hands and fattened themselves no longer attempt to dispute a heavier hand in the US’ approach to Saudi Arabia. 

Politically, Biden appears as a knight in shining armour, as the opportunity to highlight his practice of ‘value-based’ politics is at hand and reject the pervasive opportunism and cynicism that characterised the Donald Trump presidency. In his maiden presidential foreign policy speech earlier this month, Biden had proclaimed: 

“Defending freedom. Championing opportunity. Upholding universal rights. Respecting the rule of law. And treating every person with dignity. That’s the grounding wire of our global policy. Our global power. That’s our inexhaustible source of strength.”   

The US-Saudi relationship has run on the same track virtually ever since FDR struck a deal with King Abdul Aziz aboard USS Quincy in Great Bitter Lake, Egypt on the fateful day 14th February, 1945, which laid the foundation for the two countries’ “arms and security for oil” relationship. 

Perhaps, Biden with his messianic zeal about climate change doesn’t share FDR’s belief that “oil scarcity was always on the horizon and could really only be mediated by the gigantic and cheaply extracted reserves under the Saudi desert,” as Scott Montgomery, American author, geoscientist and expert on energy matters later wrote. 

Saudi Arabia’s fall from the high pedestal of US global strategy is linked to how far Biden is willing to go to recalibrate the US-Saudi relationship. Is he recalibrating the relationship as such or with one specific person — the Crown Prince? 

A US state department spokesman told the Guardian, “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 U.S. interests and values where they do not.” 

Now, that is a tall order. On the contrary, it could be that Biden is merely reverting the relationship to an institutional level, away from the personal to which Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner hijacked it. No doubt, Biden hopes to rein in the Crown Prince and weaken the latter’s ability to project power and steer Saudi foreign policy. 

A sense of angst grips Riyadh as it waits for Biden to unveil how he is seeking to engage with the kingdom. Riyadh has sought to downplay the perceptions of any rift, and affirms its desire to work closely with the Biden White House. 

Furthermore, it moved to placate Biden by quickly endorsing his demand for an end to the war in Yemen; releasing some human rights activists; muting its strident opposition to the JCPOA; announcing its rapprochement with Qatar; and, unveiling (on Monday) major legal and judicial reforms that will establish civil law in the kingdom for the first time, in addition to Islamic law. 

But Biden seems, nonetheless, bent on taking a more public stance against Saudi Arabia’s handling of domestic political opposition. Would he go to the extent of suggesting that it would behoove the kingdom and the king to find a new heir if they want to maintain good relations with the White House? 

The US officials maintain that Biden’s refusal to talk or deal with the Crown Prince is a matter of of symbolic protocol, as the POTUS only speaks to heads of state. However, as Zvi Bar’el of Haaretz newspaper noted wryly this week, 

“It will be interesting to see if that rule holds when Biden seeks to speak to the ruler of the UAE. Will the phone ring on the desk of the crown prince, bin Zayed, or in the room of his sick father? Even more interesting is how Biden will act if Crown Prince Mohammed announces that he’s establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, and proposes signing the agreement on the White House lawn with Biden in attendance.” 

Prince Mohammed is the kingdom’s defence minister and de facto controls all major and most minor governmental functions. Washington has no choice but to speak to him. Maybe, these conversations can be restricted to ministerial and professional levels for the present. But it is an entirely different matter when King Salman disappears from the stage due to illness or death. The bottom line is, 35-year old Crown Prince is largely popular among his subjects, especially with the young, who welcome his social reforms.

Curiously, Biden’s penchant for trans-Atlanticism may not even come into play here. The UK, second largest military exporter to Saudi Arabia, refused to follow suit when Biden announced pause on weapons deals to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia represented 40 percent of British arms exports between 2010 and 2019. France too looked away and continues to train Saudi soldiers. 

Canada briefly announced a freeze on new arms exports to Riyadh pending review following Khashoggi’s killing, but the suspension was lifted in April last year. Spain consistently figures as one of the EU’s largest arms exporters to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Australia bluntly refuses to ban arms sales to Saudi and the UAE. 

Unsurprisingly, the Saudis haven’t criticised Biden’s moves publicly, and instead tried to navigate the new reality through private talk. Although deeply troubled over Biden’s approach, they are not about to trade in the US for another partner yet. 

On Sunday, Saudi Arabian Military Industries signed an agreement to set up a joint venture with Lockheed Martin to enhance Saudi defence and manufacturing capabilities and localise military industries that will, “in keeping with the goals” of the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030, “build a sustainable and self-sufficient military industries sector in the Kingdom.” 

On the same day, Riyadh announced plans to spend over $20 billion on its military industry in the next decade to develop the local manufacture of weapons and military systems — and another $20 billion for research and development as well. The kingdom plans to increase spending on military research and development from 0.2 per cent to around 4 per cent of spending on armament by 2030, timeline for the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030.       

Probably, Lockheed Martin knows something we do not know. Indeed, Biden also must be aware that the Crown Prince holds all the levers of power and with great foresight defanged anyone who could be America’s favourite to be the next king of Saudi Arabia. 

In 2005, on Condoleeza Rice’s urging that  the kingdom should embrace democracy and hold free elections, Riyadh allowed limited municipal elections. And it resulted in a resounding victory for conservative, mostly anti-Western, Islamist candidates. Biden should be careful what he wishes for.