As a candidate, President Joe Biden left no doubt what he thought about how the United States should deal with Saudi Arabia.
His plan, he said, was to make the Saudis “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” Biden was equally blunt about the Saudi royal family. There is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Now, as president, Biden must deal with that government, whether it has redeeming value or not. And he must navigate a series of campaign promises to cut off arms shipments and make public the American intelligence conclusions about the role of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and the de facto leader of the country, in the killing of the dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
That process appears likely to begin this week when Biden plans to hold his first conversation with the ailing King Salman. And while the call will be full of diplomatic pleasantries, officials say, the real purpose is to warn him that the intelligence report is going to be declassified and published. The White House would say little about the carefully sequenced set of events, other than that no conversation between the two men had yet been scheduled — though clearly one was in the works.
“The president’s intention, as is the intention of this government, is to recalibrate our engagement with Saudi Arabia,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters Wednesday.
While the Trump administration dealt at length with the crown prince — who was frequently in contact with Jared Kushner, former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser — Biden is taking the position that King Salman is still the country’s leader, and the only one he will talk with directly. Since the crown prince serves as the defence minister, he has been told to communicate with Defence Secretary Lloyd J Austin III.
But the issue of protocol is less important than the sharp shift in the way the Saudis are being treated.
Nearly three weeks ago, at the State Department, Biden ordered an end to arms sales and other support to the Saudis for a war in Yemen that he called a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” American defensive arms will continue to flow, largely to protect against Iranian missiles and drones, but Biden was making good on a campaign promise to end the Trump-era practice of forgiving Saudi human rights violations in order to preserve jobs in the American arms industry.
For the administration to go directly after Crown Prince Mohammed, the workaholic, unforgiving son of the king known as MBS, is an entirely different kind of problem. The content of the assessment, chiefly written by the CIA, is no mystery: In November 2018, The New York Times reported that intelligence officials had concluded that the crown prince ordered the killing of Khashoggi, who was drugged and dismembered in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey.
The agency buttressed the conclusion with two sets of communications: intercepts of the crown prince’s calls in the days before the killing, and calls by the kill team to a senior aide to the crown prince.
The Trump administration issued sanctions against 17 Saudis involved in the killing. But the administration never declassified the findings — even stripped of the sources and methods — and avoided questions about Crown Prince Mohammed. Senior Trump officials often got angry when asked about their commitment to follow the evidence. They often asked in return whether the United States should abandon a major alliance because of the death of a single dissident and journalist.
Biden’s view was the opposite, and now Saudi officials are trying to figure out whether the president, only in office five weeks, seeks to isolate the future Saudi ruler — and will try to prevent him from becoming the nation’s leader — by imposing sanctions on him and leaving him open to criminal prosecution.
“I would certainly not say his concerns or his views have changed,” Psaki said when pressed about Biden’s characterisation of Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state. Yet it seems unlikely that that term will be used in the diplomatic readout the administration will provide after the call.
The big question is what action Biden decides to take against the crown prince.
“I hope his message is that we have to sanction MBS with the exact same sanction we imposed on the 17 other Saudi accomplices in this murder,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, an organisation Khashoggi started. “A travel ban and an asset freeze. Anything less will look like we are giving him special treatment and undermine the sanctions that we have imposed.”
“Even the Trump administration found itself forced to take action” against the other 17, Whitson said.
“The message to the Saudis has to be to get rid of this guy,” she said.
© 2021 New York Times News Service