In wake of the sustained opposition aroused by the whimsical exercise of state power by Saudi de facto ruler crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) the bevy of US policy makers comprising of officers of the Biden administration, former US diplomats, political appointees, academics and activists are divided on a single question pertaining to the viability of sustaining the substantive relationship with the desert kingdom while MBS holds power. The debate is slowly veering towards the notion that maintaining the current level of relationship is certainly not worth pursuing during the watch of the erratic crown prince.
MBS was not the preferred US candidate for succeeding the ailing King Salman as they banked upon the then crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef who collaborated with the Americans during the long-drawn war on terror but was sidelined by MBS and is now under house arrest revealing the ruthless power drive mounted by MBS. The American side was uncomfortable with the way MBS ran the state affairs but his complicity in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has left the Biden administration with a tightrope to walk. The current perception in this respect is that the partnership with Saudi Arabia was unreliable, unpalatable, outdated and overrated. The skeptical reassessment of the US policy towards Saudi Arabia is tilting towards not only recalibrating it but also to read the riot act to the King and his advisers.
The first salvo fired by the Biden administration was the release of a long-awaited intelligence report into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi that was not only in line with the campaign manifesto of Joe Biden but also was impacted by the consistent campaign of dissidents of MBS’ rule, activists and some members of the US Congress who are putting pressure to change the policy. The current emphasis is to apply intense pressure on Riyadh targeted directly at the man whom intelligence agencies concluded was complicit in the killing with the ultimate aim of removing MBS from the royal line of succession. Up to now the doves in the Biden administration are trying to take the course of recalibrating and not rupturing the relationship.
The change of perception about MBS has been also helped by the gross ignorance shown by the Trump administration towards the excesses of MBS’ rule and the release of intelligence report as well as shunning MBS are symptomatic of such change. The Biden administration is also putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to end its war on Yemen. Though the steps taken by the Biden administration were appreciated but the move to forego targeted sanctions against MBS was also met with dismay in many circles, including in the halls of Congress, where distaste for the crown prince is one of few issues on which Democrats and Republicans can find common ground. Critics are of the view that letting MBS scot-free was tantamount to grant a waiver to an erratic ruler who has sown instability around the Middle East in recent years while presiding over the most severe repression of dissent in modern Saudi history.
The apologists of the Biden administration maintain that it has sent a frank message to Saudi leaders implying that the US seek a partnership that reflects working together to pursue shared interests and priorities but also one conducted with greater transparency, responsibility and accord with the values followed by America. They add that the message reiterated that the US would not ignore or minimise egregious misconduct but the relationship was nevertheless important to US interests. The underlying assumption of the current restrained policy is that the consequences of MBS’ downfall for the United States could be worse than the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Biden administration views that imposing a public ban on MBS may be seen as declaring a hostile relationship with the kingdom, the protector of the world’s holiest Muslim sites and that freezing MBS’ was seen as virtually impossible.
The problem, however, is that the members of Congress have nevertheless expressed frustration making analysts to opine that the issue is far from over and it will continue in the public domain, in the media and in the US legislature giving a tough time to the Biden administration convincing people that this was enough. Legislative proposals are already in the works in Congress to target MBS and in this respect the possibility of sanctioning the crown prince through the global Magnitsky Act that targets officials for violating human rights was always available that would make MBS feel real consequences. If the Congress did decide to take action against MBS without Biden’s explicit support, it would not be the first time lawmakers have outmaneuvered a president on a Saudi-related issue. At the end of the Obama administration, Congress overrode a presidential veto and passed a law that limited Saudi Arabia’s sovereign immunity from lawsuits brought by the families of victims of the 11 September 2001 attacks.
It is also believed in the US that MBS was under intense pressure at home, leading a costly war that Saudi Arabia was losing in Yemen and facing threats from domestic enemies after alienating members of the royal family, including those he shook down as part of a so-called anti-corruption crackdown at the Ritz-Carlton. Analysts even do not agree that it has become too late to replace him and they are of the opinion that this possibility remains valid as he has a lot of enemies in Saudi Arabia. They add that if the objective of the United States is a stable, moderate Saudi Arabia that is stable internally and not a source of unrest in the region, then the kingdom has no place for Mohammed bin Salman. The analysts point out the contradictions in the White House’s current policy that will become difficult to navigate. When the White House sought to defend its decision to stop short of sanctioning the prince directly, it pointed to historical precedence in that foreign heads of state were not usually subjected to such measures. That contradicted earlier statements which argued that he was not, in fact, the head of state.
This point of view is supported by the argument that after releasing the intelligence report and not penalising MBS, the virtual message conveyed is that the US has tacitly acknowledged that MBS could not be punished because he was above the law. In absence of any explanation that why the prince was not penalised this impression grows strong and when viewed along with the mysterious decision involving the removal of the names of three Saudis listed as complicit in the Khashoggi murder in the intelligence report. The critics go to the extent that by sparing MBS from direct penalties has sent a clear message across the globe that those at the top can escape consequences.
They emphasise that American administration is often not looking at that relationship with honest eyes and the fact is not acknowledged that MBS has endangered the relationship and therefore he has the responsibility to take the actions to try to repair them. The US perceptions have now shifted from just about winning justice for Khashoggi but also envisioning what the US relationship looks like after a future King MBS has been in charge for decades as it is emphasised that an alliance is not just an alliance for its own sake but it tries to serve some type of strategic objective and purpose. To them MBS is ruling with the worst humanitarian record that has not even spared the high-ranking members of the ruling family as the three most influential alternatives to Prince Mohammed are now all in detention and they are Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince and a close US ally, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the only surviving full brother of King Salman, and Turki bin Abdullah, the son of the late King Abdullah. TW