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Saudi Arabia, MBS Brace for Biden Action on Yemen, Khashoggi Murder

Newsweek logo Newsweek 1/21/2021 David Brennan
Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud wearing a hat: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on September 18, 2019. © MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images/Getty Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on September 18, 2019.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be wary as President Joe Biden begins his term, aware that the days of near-unquestioning support and preferential treatment from President Donald Trump's administration are over.

Trump and his top officials stuck by the Saudi royal family despite concerns over human rights abuses within the kingdom, its brutal and disastrous war in Yemen, and the harassment and murder of prominent dissidents abroad.

The former president instead lauded Saudi Arabian purchases of American weaponry while his foreign policy team put the kingdom at the center of its nascent regional alliance to contain Iran. Trump's first trip abroad was to Riyadh, and for the rest of his term the Saudi dictatorship was a key element of his regional policy.

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But Biden has signalled a pivot away from Riyadh and consequences for the crown prince, colloquially known as MBS. The son and heir of the elderly King Salman, MBS has accumulated a broad swathe of powerful portfolios, including defense minister and the lead of the country's ambitious Vision 2030 project.

At a November presidential debate, Biden said he would "make it very clear we were not going to sell weapons of war to them." Instead, he said, a Biden administration would make the Saudis "pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are."

In October, Biden said: "Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil."

MBS is accused of personally ordering the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and directing covert teams to harass other critics living abroad. He has directed the Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war, which has become the world's worst humanitarian disaster and is stuck in a stalemate despite a relentless Saudi bombing campaign.

MBS has also overseen a crackdown on human and women's rights activists at home, even as he has introduced liberalizing reforms like allowing women to drive and organizing major music concerts and sporting events. He has also gone after the kingdom's elite, using the cover of a crackdown on corruption to bring businesspeople and fellow royals to heel.

The Trump administration gave MBS cover. But Biden and his team have vowed to hold Riyadh to account. Biden has said the Saudi monarchy has "very little social redeeming value," specifically accusing Riyadh of murdering "children...and innocent people" in Yemen.

Reuters reported on Thursday citing unnamed diplomats that MBS is already working to soften Biden's reassessment of ties and improve his standing with the new administration.

Biden's incoming team is already sending clear signals to Riyadh. Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligence who was confirmed Wednesday, said during her confirmation hearing that the Biden administration would release a report on the Khashoggi killing.

Trump backed MBS' denial of involvement, despite the conclusion of the CIA that the crown prince likely ordered the murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Sen. Ron Wyden told Haines Tuesday she would have the chance to "immediately" move away from the "excessive secrecy" and "lawlessness" of the Trump administration by submitting a Khashoggi report as ordered by Congress for a January 2020 deadline which was ignored by the former president.

Asked if she would do so, Haines replied: "Yes, senator, absolutely. We will follow the law."

MBS is also facing the end of American logistical and intelligence support for the war in Yemen, where millions are at risk of starvation amid the ongoing conflict between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the deposed internationally-recognized government.

Secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken told senators at his confirmation hearing this week the new administration would immediately review Trump's terrorist designation of the Houthi group, which critics said would hinder humanitarian efforts and complicate negotiations to end the fighting.

Blinken also reiterated Biden's past comments on the Yemen war. "The president-elect has made clear that we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and I think we will work on that in very short order," he told senators.

Blinken, Haines and new Press Secretary Jen Psaki have also indicated that Biden will move ahead on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran, something Saudi Arabia and other allies including Israel are vehemently opposed to. Trump's withdrawal from the deal in 2018 was a win for Israel and Saudi Arabia, but a Biden reversal would undercut their strategic position.

Both Blinken and Haines suggested JCPOA revival was not imminent, though were clear that the U.S. would recommit if Iran complies with the original terms, something Iranian leaders have said they will do.

Psaki told reporters Wednesday that Biden would confer with allies, but that the president "has made clear that he believes that through follow-on diplomacy, the United States seeks to lengthen and strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran and address other issues of concern."

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