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US-Saudi relationship a tightrope for Joe Biden

David Sloan
March 6, 2021

Joe Biden's rhetoric about Saudi Arabia has changed since entering office. The new president's approach has been tempered as he shies away from punishing the nation for alleged human rights abuses.

Bildkombo Joe Biden and Mohammed bin Salman
Maintaining a relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been awkward for the US

President Joe Biden is walking a tightrope as he negotiates his nation's always complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia. Even as US intelligence released a report alleging that Prince Mohamad Bin Salman was not just aware of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but approved it, the new administration has taken a softer public stance than expected.

As the Democratic candidate during the 2020 election campaign, Biden promised he would take swift action against the nation for its multiple human rights abuses. At one point, he referred to Saudi Arabia as a "pariah state" that would "pay the price," but hopes of a tougher stance against the Saudi kingdom have not come to fruition in the first month under his administration.

New White House, same challenges

The Trump administration was often criticized for overlooking human rights violations committed by the Saudi regime, as the president sought to make major arms deals with Riyadh. 

"The Trump administration was clearly willing to engage in transaction diplomacy with them," Brett Bruen, former Director of Global Engagement in President Barack Obama's White House, told DW. "The Saudis wanted to buy a lot of military equipment from them."

After the assassination of Khashoggi, the Trump White House took mild steps to confront Saudi leadership. Trump sanctioned 17 officials connected with the murder but refused to impose any upon the powerful crown prince.

Saudi Arabien Donald Trump 2017- Riad
Trump (right) had few compunctions about selling arms to Saudi ArabiaImage: Balkis Press/ABACA/picture alliance

Then Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin described the murder as a "serious rights abuse," and called on the government of Saudi Arabia to stop targeting dissent. Meanwhile, the Trump administration withheld the CIA report that concluded that Bin Salman approved the killing and dismembering of Khashoggi.

When Biden took office in January, there was expectation he would draw a line when it came to alleged human rights violations committed by Saudi leadership. But despite Biden's tough campaign rhetoric, he has softened his rebuke due to the strategic position the nation plays.

"This is part of a perennial problem that presidents have had going back for decades. An unwillingness to take a hard line in Saudi Arabia," said Bruen. "With respect to extremism, we have always had to do a delicate dance. We are reluctant to come down hard on them."

The Biden White House has called the new approach a "recalibration," perhaps hoping to maintain and develop a sustainable diplomatic relationship. The new leadership may be pressuring the Saudis more than its successors, who disregarded their human rights violations and awarded them an $8-billion (€6.7 billion) arms deal, but Biden has realized early on that to maintain peace in the region he has to use other foreign policy tools to push the Saudis in the right direction.

Jamal Khashoggi
The CIA believes Khashoggi was murdered at the behest of Mohammed bin SalmanImage: picture-alliance/newscom/AFP/Getty ImagesTNS

An indirect approach to MBS

Even as the rhetoric has toned down and there is pressure to take a tougher public stance against Bin Salman, the US government has stressed that it needs to be patient. But the steps they have taken are intended to be a part of a bigger diplomatic goal. The release of the intelligence report was one step to punish and shame the nation because of its shocking details.

"The US did not have to release the report. The US has made clear that it is not happy with MBS and is willing to go this far," William Lawrence, former diplomat and professor of international affairs at American University told DW.  "This story isn't over."

The administration has been making other indirect steps to punish MBS and to effectively isolate him. Biden's refusal to speak directly with the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia and calling for the disbanding of the Rapid Intervention Force, the elite unit assigned to crush dissidents, is an attempt to change the nation's approach to human rights.

Lawrence says that the Biden administration is publicly calling for the unit to be broken up, because privately the Saudis have most likely indicated that they won't agree to do so. The US is making its stance known publicly to put maximum pressure on them to make substantive changes and hurt Bin Salman's reputation.

The Saudis and the Iran deal

For a successful relationship in the Middle East, it includes re-entering and renegotiating the

JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. After the Trump administration decided to withdraw from the agreement, the Saudis were certainly ecstatic.

As Biden has indicated that he will re-enter the deal, the Saudis have quickly asked to be consulted when the US decides to revive the deal.

"They are concerned that if the United States returns to the agreement or negotiates a new agreement, Saudi security will be compromised as a result," Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. "They are seeking consultation with the United States to ensure that does not happen."

The pressure from Saudi Arabia will be limited. They will attempt to put up as many roadblocks as possible in hopes of at least slowing up the process. The Saudis want to see regional involvement in the process and hope that they can have a direct line with the President when any decisions are made.

"As far as leverage goes, the Saudis certainly have resources that they can use to complicate US efforts," said Cook. "They do not have a lot of options should the Biden administration seek to move forward with Iran."