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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Cautious Pragmatism: The Biden Victory from a Saudi Perspective

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by Talal Mohammad

President Donald Trump speaks with Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, during their meeting Tuesday 14 March 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. Source: The White House, Flickr

As the ballots were being counted and a Biden victory was on the horizon, the GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia, held their breath as their ‘special relationship’ with the Trump administration was coming to an end. In the days running up to the elections, journalists and analysts discussed the ramifications of a Biden presidency, especially with regards to matters in the Middle East, particularly Iran, and what a Biden victory would mean for Israel and the so-called GCC ‘moderate Sunni states’ in general, and Iran’s main regional rival, Saudi Arabia, in particular. Western analysts and commentators framed a Biden victory as a possible loss for Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s government and policy circles were largely silent, leaving the Saudi state with a limited number of options to convey their grievances and upset at the prospect of a post-Trumpian reality. It has been the Saudi media apparatus, represented by the press, which has framed a specific Saudi counter-narrative.

In large measure the Saudi reaction has sought to counteract commentary in Western outlets, namely that the country would be in a weaker position after a Trump defeat, whereby certain issues such as the war in Yemen, human rights concerns such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and a potential return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and dialogue with Iran will be brought to the fore. Indeed, a Biden administration has been depicted as a ‘worry for authoritarian regimes’, especially Saudi Arabia. Its de facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), has been framed by Western commentators as being ‘worried’ and highly dependent on his personal relationships with Donald Trump and Jared Kushner.

This counter-narrative has been strategised and directed internationally to the US and the new Biden administration, and regionally to the Arab and Saudi populace. In this vein, Arab officials have stressed to Israeli daily newspapers the threat to regional stability posed by a Biden administration changing Trump-era priorities. These include Iran coming to ‘possess nuclear weapons within a short period of time’ due to ‘dramatic changes’ to US policy in the Middle East. These shifts in policy would lead to a ‘crumbling of the regional alliance’ newly formed between Israel and the Arab states such as Bahrain, the UAE and, less explicitly, Saudi Arabia. Focusing on the implications for Saudi Arabia, analysts have discussed how Biden’s promised modus operandi in relation to Iran would embolden the latter and allow it to reinforce and possibly expand its ‘Shi’a crescent’ of Iranian influence.

The initial Saudi reaction to Biden’s victory can be summarised as cautious pragmatism based on a two-tiered discourse. As the votes were being counted, Saudi official comment on a Biden victory was communicated on an off-the-record basis and mainly through non-Arab outlets, such as the Israeli daily Israel Hayom, and the American CNBC, reflecting Saudi concerns that a Biden victory would ‘bolster Iran’. To further highlight the reticence of the official Saudi position, its rulers remained silent at Trump’s loss and were the last GCC state to congratulate Biden on his victory, 24 hours after Trump’s regional allies the UAE and Egypt sent their best wishes. Saudi Arabia’s regional concerns, especially in relation to Iran, were conveyed in the monarch’s speech inaugurating the Shurah Council two days after the announcement of Biden’s victory, which implicitly expressed Saudi needs to the president-elect, namely sustained pressure on Iran and continued US support in the Yemen war. King Salman’s words affirmed the Kingdom’s unwavering position on Iran’s Islamic Republic, that is, Saudi Arabia will not tolerate a return to Obama-era policies on Iran. The Saudi preference, therefore, is for a continuation of Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ campaign in the face of the ‘seriousness of the Iranian regime’s regional project’, and continued support in the face of ‘Iranian-backed terrorist Houthi militia’ as well as their ‘booby-trapped drones and ballistic missiles aimed at civilians in the Kingdom’, the latter a reference to the Saudi Aramco attacks in September 2019.

As the votes were being counted and the chances of a Biden win were increasing, Saudi discourse shifted to respond to the narratives trending in international outlets. In terms of the Saudi audience, newspapers such as Al-Riyadh, a daily historically known to be under the direct influence of the Saudi monarch, opined that the potential deterioration of US-Saudi relations was attributable to a conspiracy that ‘targets the Kingdom’ by virtue of a ‘misleading media’, an implicit referral to media outlets who were critical of Saudi Arabia such as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera.

Editorials also refuted the notion that ‘anti-Saudi media’ was supposedly propagating, namely the idea that the election of a Democrat as president would strain the relationship with the US, citing instead Saudi Arabia’s ‘importance, role and location’ on the world stage. To its domestic and Arab audiences, Saudi Arabia has reiterated the prestige and position the Kingdom holds on the world stage. As Biden won votes in tightly contested states, the pro-government conservative daily Al-Madina stressed the Kingdom’s leadership of the Islamic world as the ‘country of the Two Holy Mosques, the cradle of Islam’ whilst constructing an image of an economically independent kingdom with ‘natural resources that are a gift from the Lord of heaven’ and a G20 member with the ‘largest development plan in [Saudi] history’.

After US outlets announced Biden’s victory, the pro-Islamic Al-Jazirah discussed the historic relations between the US and Saudi Arabia, the rise of China as a US rival, and what that means for the US-Saudi relationship. The editorial depicted the US as a declining superpower while highlighting the historic relations between the countries spanning 75 years. Saudi discourse also underlined that the Kingdom has alternatives to the US, with China’s rise reflecting a world ‘heading into multipolarity’ while the People’s Republic of China is willing to act as a ‘geographical partner’ and ‘closer to the Arab world and Middle East’.

To the Saudis, one thing is clear, ‘America has changed and the world has changed’. The Kingdom may face an uncertain medium term future given the likely end to unconditional US support such as for the war in Yemen while ‘holding MBS accountable’ for the Khashoggi murder and attempting to revive the Obama-era JCPOA. However, what is certain is that Biden is a seasoned politician with nearly five decades of foreign policy experience and a pragmatic approach that may seek to reframe the relationship with the Saudi monarchy based on mutual interests, particularly in relation to fighting terrorism and promoting global economic security.

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