Saudi Arabia’s standing in Washington took a deep plunge when Joe Biden moved into the White House. The new president acted quickly on his campaign promise to reassess relations with Riyadh, starting by cutting off support for its brutal war in Yemen, which he branded “a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”
As the election outcome became clear last November but before the Senate balance was decided, the Saudis went on a shopping spree for Republican lobbyists. But they could not replace their two best Washington lobbyists, men with unprecedented access in the prior administration who could take their case to the highest levels of government and get the desired results.
Unfortunately for the Riyadh royals, Jared Kushner is in exile in Florida with his father-in-law, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his own survival in yet another election and in a criminal courtroom. Both have little to no clout in this administration.
It gets worse for the Saudis. Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligence, will soon report to the Congress and the public on the investigation of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Former president Donald Trump brushed aside a CIA report saying the killing had been ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler known as MBS. Trump ignored a legal requirement to produce such a report and instead he and Kushner aided the cover-up by advising MBS on damage control.
Trump also vetoed a congressional effort to halt military and intelligence assistance supporting the Saudi role in the Yemeni civil war and instead approved the sale of 10,000 more precision-guided bombs worth $760 million.
“We’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” Biden announced in his first foreign policy speech. But he intends to continue helping the kingdom “defend its sovereignty.” He also will remove Yemen’s Houthi rebels from the State Department terrorism list in an effort to facilitate a negotiated settlement.
The Saudis are trying to put a positive spin on their change of fortune by praising Biden’s “commitment to work with friends & allies to resolve conflicts.”
Israeli officials, on the other hand, are portraying the new president as a threat because of his desire to return to the Iran nuclear pact, which Netanyahu has opposed from the outset, even to the point of leading the Republican opposition to the Obama-Biden administration’s signature foreign policy achievement.
His blunt and highly partisan approach was offensive to Democrats, even helping convince some to support the deal he opposed, and it will not help him now that the party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.
The Saudis also opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but took a much lower profile.
Biden has been critical of the Saudis as unreliable allies for decades, notably because of their religious extremism at home and exported abroad.
MBS has been hoping to formally normalize relations with Israel, as the United Arab Emirates and others have, as a way of winning favor in Washington, but it was vetoed by his father, King Salman, who insists Israel must first resolve the Palestinian issue. MBS runs the kingdom on a day-to-day basis for his ailing 85-year-old father whose job he covets.
He understands Saudi Arabia no longer is the valuable US ally it once was. The Cold War is over, America has achieved energy independence, there’s a new administration that puts higher emphasis on human rights than arms sales and a president who doesn’t crave flattery and billion-dollar deals. Bottom line: The Saudis need us far more than we need them or their oil.
MBS AND NETANYAHU, as they were in the Obama administration, are working together to prevent President Biden from going through with his intention to rejoin the JCPOA.
Netanyahu didn’t wait for Biden to take office before publicly warning him to not even think about reversing Trump’s abrogation of the pact. Despite publicly referring to the Israeli prime minister as a “friend,” the relationship between the two has been often strained not only by Netanyahu’s treatment of Obama but by sharp policy differences.
In his February 4 speech to the State Department on “America’s place in the world,” Biden declared “diplomacy is back,” which sounded like a rebuke to Trump’s often ad hoc high-handed approach to foreign policy.
The president mentioned conversations he’d had with “many of our closest friends.” Noticeably missing were the prime minister of Israel and the king of Saudi Arabia. As of this writing, Biden still hasn’t spoken to either man since becoming president, something Trump and others had done at the outset.
Nowhere was the new Biden approach more apparent than in dealing with Saudi Arabia and Israel. The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, had a portfolio that covered whatever he and the president felt like doing. Early on he established personal relationships with Netanyahu and MBS, working outside diplomatic channels, often keeping the National Security Council, State and Defense departments and the intelligence agencies in the dark. He was a novice with neither experience nor background in the issues he took on, presumably emulating his father-in-law, who said his best advice came from his own gut.
Kushner often communicated with foreign leaders, particularly Netanyahu and MBS over non-secure channels, including WhatsApp.
The Saudis began courting Kushner before he even got to the White House, a New York Times investigation revealed. They sought to “position themselves as essential allies who could help the Trump administration,” the Times reported. Riyadh offered to help Trump resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spend hundreds of billions on American weapons and invested in American infrastructure. They wanted to position themselves as deal-makers before an inexperienced transactional president focused on “What can you do for me?”
The courtship proved successful.
Netanyahu’s courtship could be said to have begun many years earlier when he stayed a night at the Kushner family home in New Jersey when Jared was a teenager.
Biden has a long and well-established record as a shtarker, a reliable and proven friend of Israel, even if like most American Jews and most Israelis he isn’t enamored of Netanyahu or his policies.
Netanyahu might try to go to bat for his friend MBS, who has helped in persuading other Arab leaders, if not his own father, to normalize relations with Israel. Look for him to tell the Biden administration that no matter how bad you may think the Saudis are, Iran is much worse. And he’s right. But that doesn’t earn the Saudis a free pass for their actions in Yemen or their massive abuse of human rights at home.
Sure, MBS gave women the right to drive, but at the same time he’s been throwing women’s rights activists and other dissenters in prison. Does anyone believe that if the Saudis cleaned up their act the kingdom would collapse and become another Iran? Hosni Mubarak wasn’t overthrown in Egypt because he wasn’t repressive enough.
The Iranian threat is not an excuse for wanton bombing of the Houthis in Yemen or repression of human rights at home. Those actions, however, are major obstacles in the way of improving and expanding US-Saudi friendship in the new administration in Washington.