The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will take part in a meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 14, 2019.
Alexei Nikolsky | Sputnik | Kremlin via Reuters
President Joe Biden’s press secretary delivered a powerful message on Tuesday to the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Jen Psaki said at a press conference in diplomatic language that relations between the US and Saudi Arabia – especially those with the Crown Prince of the Kingdom – are being downgraded.
“With regard to Saudi Arabia, I would say that we made it clear from the start that we were going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” said White House Psaki.
When asked if Biden would speak to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, she replied: “Part of this is due to the commitment of the counterpart. The President’s counterpart is King Salman, and I expect this in due course. He would have a conversation lead with him. I don’t have a timeline for it. “
The quotes immediately caught the attention of regional analysts and foreign policy experts, as well as likely Gulf executives, and were an obvious nudge to Saudi Arabia’s 35-year-old heir to the monarchy and arguably the most powerful man in the region.
“It’s brave and it will hurt”
“The nudge against MBS is a warning to Saudi Arabia,” wrote Torbjorn Soltvedt, Principal MENA Analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, in an email on Wednesday, referring to the crown prince with his initials. “It is viewed as a disapproval of the leadership of MBS, which has been characterized by unpredictable decisions and a much less advisory approach than in the past.”
And the government’s apparent intention to get the Crown Prince out of the way represents a dramatic departure from the White House by Trump, which made Saudi Arabia the former president’s first overseas visit, signing and signing major arms deals with the kingdom despite opposition from Congress it failed to criticize the kingdom for its human rights violations.
This shouldn’t come as a big surprise, as Biden early promised a tougher line for the oil-rich Islamic monarchy. During a major debate in early 2020, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah they are”.
“This is not a surprising move, but it is brave and will hurt,” Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC. “There is no doubt that Psaki’s comments were directed at the Crown Prince, even though he is in every way the man in charge of the kingdom.”
A number of scandals and crises that have emerged from the kingdom since the Crown Prince came to power have been condemned not only by Democrats but also by Republicans.
A former Obama administration official said anonymously for professional reasons: “The Saudis in Washington are in the worst position they have ever been. They were only covered up by Trump’s White House.”
The Saudi government did not respond to CNBC requests for comment.
Can Biden really get MBS out of the way?
Biden has already paused on a major arms sale to the Kingdom and other Gulf allies signed under the Trump administration, and has ordered an end to U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen that created that has what the UN calls the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis.
And the kingdom was internationally condemned because the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by state agents in 2018. US intelligence linked the killing to the Crown Prince, which Riyadh vigorously denies.
“With the ongoing war in Yemen, crackdown on prominent members of the country’s political and business elite in 2017, the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and the oil price war last year, there is no shortage of raw materials for the Biden government Kick off, “wrote Soltvedt.
But how realistic is the Biden team’s goal of bypassing the Crown Prince – who is also the Secretary of Defense, who is next to the throne and who made most of the kingdom’s most important decisions?
According to Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst near the kingdom’s royal court, this is not at all realistic.
“You can’t do anything if you don’t deal with MBS,” Shihabi was quoted as saying when telling Politico. “The king works, but he’s very old. He’s the chairman of the board. He’s not involved in day-to-day affairs. After all, you’ll want to speak to MBS directly.”
King Salman, the ruling monarch since 2015, is now 85 years old.
President Donald Trump holds a chart of sales of military hardware as he greets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, USA on March 20, 2018.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
Verisk’s Soltvedt agrees. “King Salman is the head of state and ultimately controls the levers of power. But it is MBS that has direct control over the kingdom’s major portfolios and institutions,” he wrote. “A change in Washington’s approach to dealing with the Saudi leadership will not change that.”
The Biden administration is expected to give the Gulf States a lower priority than its predecessor, but they remain America’s preeminent arms customers and regional counter-terrorism partners, as well as oil suppliers – albeit less the latter from year to year.
While the Biden team signals a postponement, many foreign policy experts believe it will not be a break in relations.
“I think the most important thing is that US policy towards Saudi Arabia has been relatively consistent over the years, regardless of which party was in power,” said Tarek Fadlallah, CEO for the Middle East at Nomura.
“There will be a slightly different tone between this White House and the last White House,” said Fadlallah. “But I don’t think that will have any consequence in terms of politics towards the region or politics towards Saudi Arabia.”