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Saudi Arabia Rethinking Relationship With U.S. Under Biden


As a Biden administration prepares to take the reins, U.S. allies and adversaries are adjusting to the new political horizon. That includes Saudi Arabia. For years, the kingdom was in lockstep with the Trump administration. Now the kingdom and its powerful crown prince are having to rethink their relationship. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: For four years, it appeared President Trump provided cover for Saudi Arabia, and particularly its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. There was no public blame by Trump for the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi or the arrests of dozens of activists and dissidents and no pushback for the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians. The Saudis can expect this to change after January 20.

AYHAM KAMEL: I think that, you know, the ground is shaking in the Middle East. You have transition from an administration that the Saudis have gotten used to to a Biden world - a very, very different world for the Saudis.

NORTHAM: Ayham Kamel is head of Middle East and North Africa for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. He says it's highly unlikely the crown prince will get the same free pass from a Biden administration, particularly when it comes to human rights, so he's recalibrating the relationship.

KAMEL: The young prince wants to make things easier. He's often viewed as dogmatic, but in reality, I think he's quite flexible. Trump is out, and I think he's adjusting to a Biden administration.

NORTHAM: Kamel says there are signs that the crown prince is distancing himself from Trump, holding back on things the White House wants. Trump's adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, traveled to the kingdom to try to get it to normalize relations with Israel. But Kirsten Fontenrose, a former senior director on Gulf affairs in the Trump administration, now with the Atlantic Council, says Kushner got nowhere.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: I don't see any chance that Saudi will normalize with Israel under this administration because they don't have anything left to gain from doing that.

NORTHAM: The crown prince may be hesitant to make an Israel deal that's opposed by his ailing father, King Salman. Kushner also pushed to resolve a running dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, home to a large U.S. military base. Ahmed Al Omran with the Riyadh Bureau newsletter says those talks were progressing, but the Saudis didn't commit.

AHMED AL OMRAN: I'm not sure they were ready enough by the time that Kushner came to the region to make an announcement, but they had to say something so Kushner doesn't look as if he came back to D.C. empty-handed. So they put out these statements saying there's progress, and hopefully we'll reach an agreement soon.

NORTHAM: Fontenrose says the crown prince may want to wait to seal the Qatar deal until Biden is in the White House to help sweeten the new relationship. She says there are other things the crown prince can do.

FONTENROSE: The crown prince is definitely waiting to make a gift to Biden. What I'd heard was that he was originally intending to do a few little kind of goodwill gestures, like release some of the political activists that the U.S. has been pressing for.

NORTHAM: Fontenrose says the Saudis may want to hold those chits if things don't go well with a Biden administration, with the crown prince thinking...

FONTENROSE: We don't want this just to be a giveaway. If they're going to come out as hard, we need things that are leverage. You know, we need to be able to barter, essentially.

NORTHAM: Which is a far cry from what the Saudis were used to under the Trump administration.

Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.