Honeymoon over? Saudi Arabia-U.S. ties face reset with Biden win

Marwa Rashad, Ghaida Ghantous and Jonathan Landay
·6 min read
FILE PHOTO: G20 leaders summit in Osaka
FILE PHOTO: G20 leaders summit in Osaka

By Marwa Rashad, Ghaida Ghantous and Jonathan Landay

RIYADH/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's crown prince enjoyed a near free pass under his personal relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, but the kingdom's brazen young leader will have to tread more carefully should Democrats take the White House and reset strategic ties.

Riyadh's human rights record, with the brutal 2018 murder of Washington Post Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and detention of women activists, will be a prime point of friction with a Joe Biden administration, as will the Yemen war.

At issue for the Gulf powerhouse, which lobbied hard for Trump's maximum pressure campaign against foe Iran, is how Biden will address Tehran's ballistic missiles and support for regional proxies in any talks to revive an international nuclear pact with Iran that Washington quit in 2018.

While Riyadh and its Gulf allies prefer a Trump administration that also prioritised lucrative deals over human rights concerns, a Biden win would not upend decades-long alliances, five regional sources and diplomats said. Biden may, however, place stronger conditions on U.S. support, they said.

"There will be challenges but there are long-term strategic institutional relationships and no one wants to break the camel's back, though a Biden administration will want compromises," said one Gulf source.

A foreign diplomat in the region echoed the view that Saudi-U.S. ties would not be unduly harmed: "I imagine (Biden) would demand a few high-profile concessions ... something on women's rights defenders maybe."

In his campaign Biden pledged to reassess ties with Saudi Arabia, an oil exporting giant and major buyer of American arms, demand more accountability over Khashoggi's killing in Riyadh's Istanbul consulate and end U.S. support for the Yemen war.

"Instead of giving blank checks to dictators and authoritarians around the world, as the Trump Administration has done, Joe Biden will stand up for universal values with friends and foes alike, and stand with the democratic world as we address common challenges," a campaign spokesman told Reuters.

De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has firmly consolidated power, crushing dissent and detaining rivals to the throne, measures that tainted a reformist image initially lauded abroad as he moved to open up the kingdom.

He has denied ordering Khashoggi's killing, which sparked global outrage and spooked investors, but in 2019 indicated some personal accountability by saying it happened under his watch.

Riyadh jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years in the case. The kingdom's foreign minister, in a webinar this month, said it was also reforming security services so "something like this cannot happen again".

Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud though struck a defiant tone over Western condemnation of the trials of women activists, saying they are charged with "serious crimes".

The detainees are accused of harming Saudi interests. Few charges have been made public but some relate to contacts with foreign journalists, diplomats and rights groups.

SECURITY PARAMOUNT

Trump has objected to punitive measures against Riyadh over human rights. But in April he threatened withholding military support -- boosted after 2019 attacks on Saudi energy facilities -- after an oil war between Riyadh and Moscow wreaked havoc on markets, threatening the U.S. oil industry.

Prince Faisal stressed that despite "occasional divergences", the Saudi-U.S. alliance "goes much deeper than just one king or one president."

Riyadh and its Gulf allies strongly disagreed with the Obama administration over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the 2011 "Arab Spring", warning Washington against abandoning traditional allies and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

State-backed media in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recently focused on emails linked to Hillary Clinton and the Brotherhood -- a move one Saudi source said aimed to show Democrats had erred and could do so again.

"There is concern that a Biden presidency would at best, mean a reduced U.S. focus on the Middle East, and at worst ... a more hardline approach towards Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries," said Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of Riyadh-based Gulf Research Center.

"There is a desire for clarity among Saudis in terms of what Biden's concrete foreign policy would be towards Saudi Arabia."

Gulf states are also trying to push through arms deals, with the UAE and Qatar seeking U.S. F-35 fighter jets.

HOLDING CARDS CLOSE

The UAE has hedged its bets, reducing its military presence in Yemen and becoming the first Arab state in a quarter century to normalise ties with Israel, creating a new axis against Iran and Islamists deemed a threat to Gulf dynastic rule.

Bahrain followed suit, handing Trump a win in U.S.-brokered accords that also garnered bipartisan support.

"One of the reasons Gulf states are establishing relations is because they realised a few months ago they might not have the U.S. to rely on as in the past. Israel is a natural partner," said a source familiar with the process.

Saudi columnist Mohammed Al Al-Sheikh, writing in local daily Al Jazirah, said this "created a new reality on the ground that candidate Biden cannot overlook" when dealing with Iran.

Trump initially said the United States was "locked and loaded" after the 2019 attacks on Saudi oil facilities, blamed by Riyadh and Western powers on Tehran, but a conventional military response did not materialise. The apparent attempt to avoid a war was watched closely around the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia tacitly backed the Israel deals but is unlikely to join soon given its position as custodian of Islam's holiest sites and architect of a 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that offered Israel ties in return for Palestinian statehood.

Riyadh has said only an Israeli-Palestinian deal could deliver lasting peace and stability.

"The Saudis will probably not move to recognize Israel before the election in large part because this is a card they can play with a new Biden administration," said David Rundell, a former chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh.

Gulf rivals are also biding time over a political row that has seen Riyadh and its allies boycott Qatar, two of the Gulf sources said, despite pressure from Trump to end the dispute.

If Trump wins, Riyadh would seek to end the row and form a united Gulf Arab front against Iran, one of the sources said. "It may not be as big an issue for Biden, but if he also pushes for it, then we'll see progress."

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington, Davide Barbuscia and Trevor Hunnicutt; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous, Editing by William Maclean)