Barely over a month in office and we have seen a radical shift in US policies both domestic and international under Joe Biden. One particular policy decision that has starkly stood out, has been an explicitly repetitive call to support democracy and uphold the high ideal of human rights in all corners of the world. While a proclamation of such order seems like the preamble to America’s textbook of pre-emptive actions, this policy intention has been under the spotlight, owing to its ability to shape the US foreign policy in the Middle East.
Democrat President Joe Biden’s decision to end support of the six-year-long Yemen war, and reassess American arms sales that began under his tenure as Vice President is surprisingly not what is making the headlines around the world this week. Jamal Khashoggi is a name that is familiar not just in journalistic circles but elsewhere too. Khashoggi was a Washington Post Saudi journalist who was killed in 2018 in Turkey. Following Khashoggi’s gruesome murder at the Saudi Embassy, fingers were instantly pointed at Saudi Arabia, and rather spectacularly on Mohammed Bin Salman, a.k.a, MBS. The Trump administration refused to publish a report linking MBS to the murder, despite the American legislature passing an act calling on intelligence services to provide evidence tying MBS to Khashoggi’s killing. However, matters are a bit different under the Democrat White House. Biden, who made it abundantly clear that his administration is not going to base their Middle East Policy on Saudi Arabia, unlike his predecessors, has finally called for the publication of the long blocked report in the public domain. What remains to be seen is how this is going to alter the relationship between the Americans and their strategically important partner in the Middle East.
Jamal Khashoggi had enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the Saudi Kingdom. He was known to have enjoyed close relations with the Royal family and often acted as an official spokesperson for them. . Khashoggi’s relationship with the ruling family and Saudi Arabia was redefined when King Salman’s son Mohammad Bin Salman started accumulating power and was soon made the Crown-Prince, set to inherit his father’s position. It is during this time Khashoggi distanced himself from the helm of power and became a critic of MBS and his policies often calling out the government and central political figures for imposing severe and autocratic policies. Despite his staunch stance, which fell well within the journalistic standards, no one foresaw what would befall Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, having had come to terms with the threat looming over him, had relocated to the United States, in the form of a self-exile and had been a regular contributor to the Washington Post. Khashoggi in the summer of 2018 had travelled to Turkey in search of marital bliss. Tragically, before he could tie the knot, Jamal Khashoggi was reported missing from the Saudi embassy in Turkey and later pronounced dead.
Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia were extremely warm under the Trump administration. However, the defining feature in this relationship wasn’t the two heads of state, rather the shots were called by Mohammad Bin Salman, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The two young and like-minded individuals forged a close relationship in the second part of the decade, mainly due to their shared business mindset. In fact, Trump on Kushner’s urgings decided to make his first official overseas visit to Saudi Arabia. From the very onset of his Presidency, Trump cultivated a very close relationship with the Saudi Kingdom making it the fulcrum of his Middle-East policy, and viewing the country as an important ally against America’s long Middle East rival, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The relationship was further strengthened through the Trump Administration’s decision to increase arms sales to Saudi Arabia, whilst backing its campaign in the Yemen war.
Despite Trump and Kushner obviously viewing their Saudi counterparts as their bosom companions, it was still an utter shock to see Trump adopt an ambiguous stance towards the killing of Washington Post Journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trumps’ decision to blatantly believe what the Crown-Prince had to say, shook the Congress and American Intelligence Services, as the CIA itself concluded with medium-high certainty that Mohammad Bin Salman was aware of and directly involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
In 2018, the United States Senate, unanimously passed Resolution 69, which recognised that the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has, in recent years engaged in concerning behaviour, which includes its conduct in the civil war in Yemen, the apparent detention of the Prime Minister of Lebanon, suppression of dissent in the Kingdom and of course the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The resolution explicitly recognises the misleading statements issued by the Saudi government, and that the fact the recent actions have undermined trust and confidence in the long-standing friendship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The following resolution having been passed unanimously proved that the United States Senate was ready to take up its role in shaping foreign policy which it had long abdicated in favour of the executive. Despite the directness and consensual adoption of the resolution, it fell short of having any effect on American foreign policy. Owing simply to the fact that the Trump Administration actively suppressed its publication and wrote a blank cheque to the Saudi Government.
The United States turned a new page under the Biden Administration, as it seeks to calibrate American ties with the Gulf country. From the inception of Biden’s bid for the Presidency, he has portrayed a hard stance against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. During his campaign trails, he has gone to the extent of calling the country a ‘pariah’ state. In the short time that he has been in office, he has already reduced arms sales to the country, and the report presented to the Congress a few days ago by the Biden-Harris Administration was the proverbial last nail in the coffin. However, it is still early to determine the exact ramifications the report will have on the American-Saudi relationship and more importantly on the Kingdom’s de facto ruler MBS himself. The Biden administration may seem to be on a war footing undeterred by policies followed by their predecessors, but they have been extremely strategic. Apart from the incessant repetition by the White House Press Office, that decision would be taken keeping in mind that current relationship the two states share, Joe Biden prior to releasing the report also spoke to King Salman, the current head of state. Another anomaly that we see, is a dearth of White House officials rushing to the press to give insights into what the publication of the report means for the Saudis.
In the past few years, it has been evident to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the intelligence services that Mohammed Bin Salman, wasn’t the top choice to be the leader of America’s closest ally in the Middle East. However, America’s top choice, Muhammad bin Nayef Al Saud, who served as the interior minister and was responsible for successfully countering the Al-Qaeda in the Kingdom, now lives in Canada in exile. The release of the report has just provided ammunition to the gun lying uncocked with the US Congress. Since the report by the Biden-Harris administration, we have already seen the imposition of the ‘Khashoggi Ban’, which is a new VISA policy, that sets new restrictions pursuant to section 21(a)(3)(C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The largely unanswered question that remains is how the American officials aim to publicly cooperate with a man who they have held responsible for an act of such nature. A possible divorce driven by public sentiment, or even a temporary souring of relations between the two countries could be a blessing in disguise for the IS and Al-Qaeda. However, another international actor set to benefit is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ramifications of Joe Biden’s decision to halt arms sales to the Saudis were evident when Iran-backed Houthis rebels were quick to capitalise on this and decided to advance on several fronts. However, in the near future, we need to consider the possibility that America’s decision to distance itself from Riyadh, could very well open doors for China, Russia and may even push the Saudi officials to develop closer ties with the Israelis.
The release of the report, along with growing opposition to the Yemen war and President Biden’s insistence on speaking with King Salman, instead of his son MBS, has heralded a new era in US-Saudi relations. An era that is marked with a host of strategic calculations on the part of the United States, that are aimed at keeping Saudi Arabia at an arm’s length, while being able to exploit its strong position in the Middle East. Like many other acts of geopolitical significance that are often ignored in the hope of a natural solution, I fear this is not applicable in this case. Khashoggi’s death has stirred up feelings against the Saudi Kingdom and the leadership which could very well be directed towards America if they fail to act decisively in the near future.