The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s friendship started a long way back during World War II, when US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Saudi King Ibn Saud met on the US carrier on the great bitter lake in Egypt. Since then, the United States-Saudi Arabia relationships have withstood a huge challenge, namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the US and Saudi Arabia were on opposite sides as Washington backed Israel whereas the Saudis backed the Palestinians. Despite this challenge, the relationships remained strong.
With Joe Biden becoming the 46th President of the United States, relationships between the two countries are facing new challenges, putting the age-old ties under stress.
The gruesome killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 under unclear circumstances at the Saudi embassy in Turkey created a situation where the Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman was directly accused of his murder. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) fairly concluded that the Saudi Arabian crown prince ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
However, then US President Trump pursued a transactional relationship with Saudi Arabia. With the latter being a large buyer of American weapons, President Trump feared that any sanctions against Saudi Arabia could have led to financial losses for Washington, as the kingdom would have refused to buy weapons from the US.
Furthermore, President Trump needed not to antagonize Saudi Arabia as its support was crucial to his fight against Iran, following his withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal in early 2018.
On the contrary, President Biden adopted a different approach. Since he took office, he has been the protagonist of three actions that have directly put into question the stability of the United States-Saudi Arabia relationships.
Firstly, President Biden released the CIA report on Kashoggi’s murder, which directly implicated the Saudi Arabian crown prince, though the publication was preceded by a private talk between President Biden and Saudi King Salman. Although the report did not directly sanction Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the action was nonetheless remarkable.
Secondly, during the crisis in Jordan which saw King Abdullah facing what was widely defined as an attempted coup by his own half-brother Prince Hamzah, allegedly influenced by Sharif Hassan Bin Zaidi - a dual Saudi-Jordanian citizen -, President Biden backed the King of Jordan reaffirming the United States’ support for his leadership, whereby giving Saudi Arabia a clear message on the importance of status quo in Jordanian remaining unaltered.
On a different note, the declassification of 9/11 documents has been constituting a thorn in the United States-Saudi relationships for a long time. The role of Saudi Arabia in the 9/11 attacks is in fact a disputed one. The families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks had asked the Trump administration to release the files documenting the Saudi government’s role in the attacks. However, the Trump administration could not fulfill the request.
Before becoming President during the campaign trail, President Biden promised to release those documents, and he honoured that promise just before the anniversary of 9/11, ordering his administration to release the documents over the next 6 months. The families of the 9/11 victims were clear that President Biden should not consider attending the 9/11 memorial service if his promise had not been fulfilled by then. In fact, the president did attend the name-reading commemoration in Lower Manhattan, along with former presidents Obama and Clinton accompanied by their respective wives.
If we look at these developments it would be fair to conclude that President Biden appears to be willing to cross the Saudis on important issues dear to him, which has severely damaged the relations between the two countries. Deteriorating relationships with Saudi Arabia are probably going to hurt the strategic interests of the US, as the peace agreements signed by Israel with the Gulf monarchies under US supervision might not involve Saudi Arabia in the future. It is important to remember that a peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be a huge achievement: ever since the creation of Israel, one of the major goals of the US foreign policy was in fact to lead the majority of Middle Eastern countries towards open dialogue and mutual recognition with Israel. President Trump succeeded in achieving this goal with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which signed peace agreements with Israel. Riyadh has not considered this step yet, and with President Biden’s approach casting a shadow over Saudi Arabia’s dispositions, striking a deal might no longer constitute a possibility for the near future.
Ultimately, President Biden’s recent actions with respect to Saudi Arabia are making Riyadh questioning its importance to the current United States administration.