WASHINGTON / RIYADH–US President Joe Biden and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud held a long-awaited first phone call Thursday, stressing the enduring strength of ties ahead of the publication of a US intelligence report on the 2018 killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.
The report would further target Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and cast a huge shadow over relations between the United States and its most significant ally in the Arab world which had flourished under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump.
In their phone call, Biden and the Saudi monarch were said to have discussed “the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups,” according to a statement from the White House.
But the statement added that Biden told King Salman he would work for bilateral ties “as strong and transparent as possible,” in a hint to the expected release of the intelligence report on Khashoggi’s murder.
According to Arab and Western analysts, the targeting of Crown Prince Mohammed through this report could mean excluding Riyadh from any future arrangements involving the Iranian nuclear file.
A month into the Biden administration, it has become clear that “recalibrating” relations with Saudi Arabia is a priority for the United States.
It is not clear, however, what was the endgame behind the US’s particular focus on the Khashoggi case is, even though many leaks have fueled speculation that Washington’s undeclared is to “remove” Crown Prince Mohammed from his position as crown prince.
The Pentagon announced earlier in the week that US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to “Saudi Defence Minister” Crown Prince Mohammed, hence describing the conversation between Austin and his Saudi interlocutor as one between two ministers instead of one between a US cabinet member and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia who is the day-to-day de facto ruler of his country.
Biden told reporters on Wednesday that he had read the classified report on Khashoggi, without making any comments about it. But questions have swirled about the US president’s intent regarding Riyadh and whether he will he continue using harsh rhetoric against the country as he did on the campaign trial.
The other question is whether the Biden administration’s post-election considerations will be different from those on the campaign trail and if Washington will eventually prioritise its higher interests over other concerns, including human rights.
While Biden will only communicate with the king, others in his administration are talking to Saudi officials at several levels.
US diplomatic and media pressure against Saudi Arabia seemed to intensify on the eve of Biden’s call to King Salman on Thursday.
Analysts believe another goal is to obtain concessions from Riyadh on issues where the new US administration wants to achieve immediate success, such as the Yemen and Iranian nuclear files.
During the Thursday call, Biden and the Saudi king emphasised the countries’ security ties and “the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups,” said The White House.
Publication of the Khashoggi report, expected Friday, could complicate US-Saudi relations.
Saudi affairs experts believe that Biden’s delay in contacting King Salman for weeks since his inauguration and the critical statements made by many figures in the new administration as well as media leaks and published reports are all attempts to confuse the Saudis and compel them to make concessions that would ultimately serve the Biden administration’s agenda and to a certain extent fulfill his electoral pledges.
Experts believe that the Saudis have so far only expressed a diplomatic desire to cooperate with the new administration, especially to reach a political settlement in Yemen, but have not displayed a willingness to accept the reset of relations at their expense as a fait accompli.
Experts feel Riyadh is unlikely to agree to withdraw from Yemen without guarantees that its national security needs will be met. That could push Washington to use its backchannels to pressure Iran and the Houthis into accepting mutual concessions so as to make sure that the fighting does not flare up once current conditions change.
The US pressure is also not expected to lead to Saudi concessions on the Iranian nuclear issue due to the issue’s domestic sensitivity in Riyadh, especially due to Crown Prince Mohammed’ hardline position on the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and demands that the deal include additional provisions curtailing Iran’s expansionism in the region and its interference in other countries’ internal affairs.
Biden pledged in his 2020 presidential campaign to reassess US-Saudi relations and draw conclusions from the Khashoggi murder.
Since taking office, the US president has suspended the sale of offensive weapons that Saudi Arabia could use in Yemen and appointed a special envoy to bolster diplomatic efforts to end the war there.
The official stances coincided with leaks aimed at pressuring Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed.
CNN has just published a summary of documents it described as confidential, saying that the two private jets used by the group accused of murdering Khashoggi were owned by a company belonging to the Saudi crown prince.
The network also carried an admission by William Burns, Biden’s nominee to head the CIA, contained in a written questionnaire submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee ahead of Wednesday’s confirmation hearing that “he received a group trip to the Super Bowl as a holiday gift from the Saudi ambassador sometime over the last five years.”
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