The White House is sending one signal after another that the new American president will not conduct business as usual with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Senior officials say that President Joe Biden will no longer interact directly with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS.)
Biden will, instead, only deal directly with King Salman.
That may be challenging since the monarch is 85 and not exactly at the peak of his strength.
“We’re going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “Part of that is going back to engagement counterpart-to-counterpart. The president’s counterpart is King Salman.”
Now, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will interact with the crown prince, given that MBS also serves as Saudi’s defense minister.
This marks a major change from the Trump administration, in which both former President Donald J. Trump and his senior team regularly spoke with, met with and interacted with MBS, given that he has emerged as the de facto chief operating officer of the kingdom.
The announcement comes on the heels of two other recent moves by the Biden team.
In January, Avril Haines, the new Director of National Intelligence, announced during her Senate confirmation hearings that she would soon be releasing an unclassified version of the US intelligence community’s assessment of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
The report could contain information on whether MBS knew about the murder ahead of time, or even ordered it.
Also in January, the Biden team announced it was pausing the sales of military equipment and arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates, pending a careful review of U.S. policy towards both countries.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken argued the reviews were standard operating procedure for a new administrating saying they were being conducted “to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives, and advances our foreign policy.”
But some analysts believe Biden is angry at the Saudis for the Khashoggi murder – and angry at the Saudis and the Emiraties for prosecuting the messy and seemingly never-ending war in Yemen – and want Riyadh and the rest of the world to see the downgrading of the White House’s view of MBS.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, told Bloomberg News that the moves are “meant to send a signal that President Biden wants certain things from the crown prince, such as an end to the war in Yemen and a different approach to dissent at home.”
Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official specializing in the Middle East, told Bloomberg, “This is a slapdown of MBS, who the administration views as reckless and ruthless.”
That said, as ALL ARAB NEWS reported last week, Biden personally praised the Saudis last week for releasing three political prisoners.
In remarks at the Pentagon in Washington, President Joe Biden called al-Hathloul’s release “welcome news.”
“The Saudi government has released a prominent women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, from prison,” Biden told reporters.
“She was a powerful advocate for women’s rights and releasing her was the right thing to do,” he added.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, tweeted, “Pleased to see the release of Loujain al-Hathloul. This is a good thing.”
Will MBS now accelerate the pace of his internal changes and reforms both for their own sake, but also to show Biden he is committed to real and lasting change?
We’ll be watching.