The Biden administration’s approach to Saudi Arabia

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, March 18th, 2021. We’re so glad you’re along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up: Saudi Arabia.

Two months in office and already the Biden administration has faced several foreign policy tests. One of them is Saudi Arabia. A U.S. intelligence report released last month concludes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

REICHARD: This came as no surprise. But what did surprise some people was the lack of punitive measures against the Saudi crown prince. During the Democratic debate, then candidate Joe Biden vowed to make Saudi officials responsible for the murder “pay the price.”

WORLD’s Jill Nelson reports on our complex relationship with Saudi Arabia and whether the president failed a crucial leadership test.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: The reported demise of Jamal Khashoggi unfolded like a horror film. He went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2, 2018, but he didn’t come out. 

Turkish investigators tried to piece together what happened. Then, the gruesome details began to emerge.

NEWS: The report describes how Jamal Khashoggi died and was dismembered by Saudi officials…

Khashoggi was once a Saudi royal insider but became a critic of the regime and started writing for The Washington Post. His death is one of many human rights abuses tarnishing the image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The 35-year-old leader has taken over many of his aging father’s responsibilities and  is trying to brand himself as a reformer. 

Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies where she studies reform trends in the Gulf States. She is critical of the Trump administration’s transactional approach to the Saudi kingdom.

KODUVAYUR: It was really tragic in my opinion because President Trump had a golden opportunity to work with this rising new leader, to guide the young royal and encourage Mohammed bin Salman to take long-standing US concerns on things like human rights, freedom of expression, extremism etc. seriously.

The Trump administration sanctioned 17 Saudi leaders but failed to single out the crown prince. During the Democratic debate, President Biden promised to do more. 

BIDEN: Khashoggi was in fact murdered and dismembered, I believe in the order of the crown prince. We are going to in fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are. 

Now some politicians and journalists are saying President Biden hasn’t done any more than the Trump administration to send a clear message to Mohammed bin Salman. Koduvayer disagrees. 

KODUVAYUR: I actually think that it’s been night and day. I do know that there were some voices calling for the sanctioning of Mohammed bin Salman, and I want to bring attention to the fact that while the US has sanctioned world leaders before, it has never been the leader of a country that it has as much of a security partner with the US as Saudi Arabia. 

Here’s what the Biden administration did do: They slapped travel bans on 76 Saudis and added additional people to the sanctions list. They also ended U.S. support for the kingdom’s five-year offensive in Yemen.

Sarah Feuer is an associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She agrees with Koduvayer’s assessment and says we are seeing a new approach to Saudi policy and Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. 

FEUER: I think it was an effort to show that maybe we can expect what we might call naming and shaming on the part of the new administration. 

President Biden may not be making Saudi Arabia into a pariah, but she says the new administration is making it clear that the crown prince should not assume the same cozy relationship he had with President Trump.

FEUER: There has been a not so subtle shift in terms of not really referring to MBS  much. So it’s King Salman is the leader and if anybody is going to speak to President Biden it’s the king, it’s not MBS. This is a shift. That I think also is an attempt to kind of send a signal if you want to deal with us, you know, there are going to be some expectations. 

MBS pledged in 2016 to embrace social reforms in a country known for its repressive laws.

FEUER: There’s clear evidence of reforms that have been carried out, whether it’s women driving, mixed genders in public spaces, the moves at least toward even allowing for Christian worship in the kingdom.

In 2018, the kingdom allowed a Coptic Christian church service. And Koduvayar says Saudi Arabia also banned flogging and initiated textbook reforms. 

KODUVAYUR: A lot of different hateful passages were excised from Saudi textbooks, this was very encouraging. This has been a thorn in the US-Saudi relationship for years, over a decade.

But churches are still banned, and the list of jailed human rights activists continues to grow. MBS has made it clear he will not tolerate grassroots activism, and he will only permit change from the top down. 

Still, Feuer says good relations with Saudi Arabia will serve our other interests in the region, like pushing back against Iran and normalizing relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia has also played a strategic role in balancing oil markets and fighting extremism. And when the 85-year-old king dies, the young crown prince could become the longest ruling monarch in Saudi history. 

Koduvayur says in light of these realities, she is in favor of the Biden administration’s “recalibrate not rupture” approach to the kingdom.

KODUVAYUR: It would not be in the U.S.’s interests to blow up the relationship with Saudi Arabia, but it is very much in the U.S.’s interests to continue to hold Saudi leadership accountable and scrutinize them for their human rights record.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.

(Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File) In this Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, file photo, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a virtual G-20 summit held over video conferencing, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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