News Biden avoids engaging with MBS- Saudi Arabia

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Biden’s snub of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a ‘warning’ signaling a relationship downgrade​


  • Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is Saudi Arabia’s 35-year-old heir to the throne and arguably the most powerful man in the region.
  • President Joe Biden early on promised to take a harder line on the oil-rich Islamic monarchy than his predecessor Donald Trump did.
  • “The Saudis in Washington are in the worst position they’ve ever been,” a former Obama administration official told CNBC.
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UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – President Joe Biden’s press secretary delivered a striking message to Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, this week. Jen Psaki told a news conference, using diplomatic language, that the U.S.-Saudi relationship — particularly that with the kingdom’s crown prince — is being downgraded.
“On Saudi Arabia I would say we’ve made clear from the beginning that we are going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Psaki said Tuesday from the White House.

On the question of whether Biden would be speaking with the crown prince, she replied: “Part of that is going back to engagement counterpart-to-counterpart. The president’s counterpart is King Salman, and I expect that at an appropriate time, he would have a conversation with him. I don’t have a timeline on that.”
The quotes drew instant attention from regional analysts and foreign policy experts, and likely leaders in the Gulf as well, as a blatant snub of Saudi Arabia’s 35-year-old heir to the monarchy and arguably the most powerful man in the region.
“Well, I think what Jen said, in fact, I know what she said is that the president would be engaging with his counterpart, and this his counterpart, is the King,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Wednesday.
Price added that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will similarly engage with his counterpart, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.
“President Biden has said that we’ll review the entirety of that relationship to make sure that it advances the interests and is respectable and is respectful of the values that we bring to that partnership,” Price said.

“We of course know that Saudi is an important partner on many different fronts regional security counterterrorism are just two of them,” he added.

‘It is bold, and it will hurt’​

“The snub to MBS represents a warning to Saudi Arabia,” Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal MENA analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, wrote in an email note Wednesday, referring to the crown prince by his initials. “It will be seen as a disapproval of MBS’s leadership which has been characterized by unpredictable decision-making and a much less consultative approach than in the past.”

And the administration’s apparent intention to sideline the crown prince represents a dramatic departure from the Trump White House, which made Saudi Arabia the former president’s first overseas visit, signed major arms deals with the kingdom in defiance of congressional opposition, and refrained from criticizing the kingdom over its human rights violations.

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, since Biden early on promised a harder line on the oil-rich Islamic monarchy. During a primary debate in early 2020, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are.”

“This is hardly a surprising move, but it is bold, and it will hurt,” Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC. “There’s no doubt that Psaki’s comments were targeted at the crown prince, even though he is to all intents and purposes the man in charge of the kingdom.”

A number of scandals and crises coming from the kingdom since the crown prince came to power have drawn condemnation not just from Democrats, but Republicans as well.
According to one former Obama administration official, speaking anonymously due to professional constraints, “The Saudis in Washington are in the worst position they’ve ever been. It’s just been covered up by the Trump White House.”
The Saudi government did not respond to CNBC requests for comment.

Can Biden really sideline MBS?​

Already, Biden has put a pause on a major weapons sale to the kingdom and other Gulf allies signed under the Trump administration, and he mandated an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has created what the U.N. calls the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis.

And the kingdom came under international condemnation for the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by state agents. U.S. intelligence linked the death to the crown prince, something Riyadh forcefully denies.

“With the ongoing war in Yemen, the crackdown on prominent members of the country’s political and business elite in 2017, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and the oil price war last year, there’s no shortage of raw issues for the Biden administration to take umbrage with,” Soltvedt wrote.
But how realistic is the Biden team’s aim to bypass the crown prince — who is also minister of defense, next in line for the throne and has been making the bulk of the kingdom’s major decisions?

According to Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the kingdom’s royal court, it isn’t realistic at all.
“They can’t get anything done if they don’t deal with MBS,” Shihabi was quoted as telling Politico. “The king is functioning, but he’s very old. He’s chairman of the board. He’s not involved in day-to-day issues. Eventually, they’re going to want to be talking directly to MBS.”

King Salman, the reigning monarch since 2015, is now 85 years old.

President Donald Trump holds a chart of military hardware sales as he welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2018.

President Donald Trump holds a chart of military hardware sales as he welcomes Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2018.Jonathan Ernst | Reuters


Verisk’s Soltvedt agrees. “King Salman is the head of state and ultimately holds the levers of power. But it is MBS who exercises direct control over the kingdom’s most important portfolios and institutions,” he wrote. “A shift in Washington’s approach to its dealings with the Saudi leadership won’t change that.”

While the Biden administration is expected to place a lower priority on the Gulf states than his predecessor did, they still remain America’s preeminent weapons customers and regional counterterrorism partners, as well as suppliers of oil — though less and less so by the year for the latter.

So while the Biden team is signaling a shift, it’s not going to be a break in relations, many foreign policy experts believe.

“I think the most important thing to realize is over the years U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia has been relatively consistent irrespective of which party has been in power,” said Tarek Fadlallah, Middle East CEO at Nomura.

“There’s going to be a slightly different tone between this White House and the last White House,” Fadlallah said. “But I don’t think it’s going to be consequential in terms of policy toward the region or policy toward Saudi Arabia.”

-- CNBC’s Amanda Macias contributed to this report from Washington.

 

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Biden avoids engaging with MBS in ‘unrealistic’ reset of relations​


Experts argue that Washington has the right to review its position on the war in Yemen but it has no right to hold the Saudi crown prince responsible for the conflict that was imposed on his country.

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WASHINGTON – The new US administration says that President Joe Biden is seeking to re-examine Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, and for this, his interlocutor will be Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud instead of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

The US’s approach appears to be ordinary on the surface, but actually conceals its prior prejudice against the Saudi crown prince, whose name has been nonetheless associated with major economic reforms and Riyadh’s desire to build a new kingdom oriented towards diversifying partners and maintaining a hardline stance on Iran and its nuclear programme.

“We have been clear from the beginning that we will reset our relations with Saudi Arabia,” said US presidential spokeswoman Jane Saki during a news conference on Tuesday, indicating the administration would seek to take a different approach from its predecessor in dealing with Riyadh.

When asked about the possibility of Biden holding telephone talks with the Saudi crown prince, who was the US administration’s preferred interlocutor during former President Donald Trump’s term in office, Saki clearly indicated that the matter is not on the agenda.

”The president’s counterpart is King Salman and he will talk to him at the appropriate time,” she said.

Former diplomat Aaron David Miller, who has worked as a negotiator with both Democratic and Republican administrations, wrote on Twitter that “Biden is sending an unambiguous message to Saudi Arabia.”

“The days when Prince Mohammed bin Salman had direct contact with the White House are over, at least for now,” he wrote.

The Saudi crown prince will likely wait for the storm to pass and remain calm in dealing with the US’s escalating rhetoric, especially as Riyadh was expecting hostile lobbies to find an opportunity to settle scores with the kingdom after the new US administration took power. A scenario in which Riyadh finds itself in the crosshairs occurs every time a new American administration takes power, observers say.

Gulf experts, however, consider that the Biden administration’s position is incomprehensible.

According to them, Crown Prince Mohammed has been chosen to lead the country as per understandings within the kingdom’s royal family, and he is the face of the future in Saudi Arabia, not only because he is a young man from a new generation, but also because he has devised strategic plans to develop the kingdom on multiple fronts.

The crown prince, Gulf experts say, wants to transform the kingdom into a regional economic and political power. In recent years, he has pressed ahead with a modernisation process, reforming laws in order to open up the country to universal values and put an end to austere conservatism, which actually brings him closer to the West and its demands.

Experts rule out the idea that the Biden administration’s position on Crown Prince Mohammed is due to his close relations with former President Donald Trump. The new administration, they say, is dealing with Saudi Arabia in light of Washington’s positions on regional files, as well as the demands it receives from rights lobbies that are seeking to escalate pressure on Riyadh by bringing the Jamal Khashoggi case back up and investing in the Yemeni conflict file.

Trump had supported Riyadh without reservation, with Riyadh being the first foreign capital he visited at the beginning of his term. He had a good relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed, as did his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

In 2018, Trump received the Saudi crown prince at the White House and the former US president stressed the “great friendship” he had with his Saudi guest. “We understand each other,” he said at the time, which was considered the first official confirmation of the Trump administration’s support for the young Saudi crown prince and his projects to develop the kingdom.

Experts argue that Washington has the right to review its position on the war in Yemen and circumvent previous agreements by US administrations to supply Saudi Arabia with weapons and ammunition used in the war, but it has no right to hold the Saudi crown prince responsible for the conflict that was imposed on his country.

The war in Yemen is a complex conflict, they say, involving different parties and agendas, some of which the Biden team seeks to draw close to, like Iran, rather than hold them accountable for training and arming Houthi militias to divide Yemen.

— Self-impoed restrictions —

The Saudi crown prince is known for his hardline stance on Iran and its proxies in the region, which was reflected in his statements to major Western media outlets, including the American CBS channel in 2018, in which he said that his country would develop a nuclear bomb if Iran were to produce one.

This hardline stance on Iran is not in line with Biden’s strategy, which aims to return the US to the nuclear agreement and gradually lift sanctions on Tehran. The Saudi crown prince is also pushing for the inclusion of new conditions to any new agreement with Iran, including that Tehran must respect regional security and end its arms race, which Riyadh says poses a threat to its neighbours and leaves them no choice but to also enter the race.

Saudi Arabia’s position was met with understanding by many countries in the East and the West, which could undermine Biden’s plans to revive the strategy of his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama to bet on Iran. Biden’s approach will also leave the door open to interference from China and Russia as the region’s countries need to obtain weapons to ensure their security and face Tehran.

Biden’s new strategy in dealing with Saudi Arabia will further reduce Middle East countries’ level of confidence in the United States, which has been declining since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent rapprochement with Iran.

David Gardner, a senior Middle East affairs analyst at the Financial Times, said “Doubts prevail throughout the Middle East about the extent to which this US administration might risk its traditional alliances in the region,” considering that “the regional vacuum created by successive US administrations has been filled partially by Russia, Iran and Turkey.”

Other analysts further point out that the Biden’s decision runs against the grain of traditional American foreign policy realism.

According to them, using protocol considerations to circumvent the de facto top executive in Saudi Arabia will only deprive Washington, through self-imposed restructions, of a chance to influence Riyadh’ s key decisions about issues that could affect US interests in the region and the world.

 
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