Instead of engaging primarily with Biden, the crown prince’s most appropriate US counterpart is Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, according to a person familiar. While Prince Salman’s official role is deputy prime minister and defense minister, he has a vast range of responsibilities as heir to the throne his father, 85, has held since 2015.
The US statement is the latest sign of how the Biden administration is reassessing the close ties established between Washington and Riyadh during the Trump administration. Former President Donald Trump made Saudi Arabia the centerpiece of his strategy toward the Middle East, and in a break with precedent took his first trip abroad as president to Riyadh.
That’s all being scaled back now. In Biden’s first few days, the US put a hold on some key weapons sales to the kingdom and announced new efforts to bring an end to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Biden has also called on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record.
This suggests that US-Saudi relations will return to “more structured, routine channels,” according to Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Mideast official at the State Department.
“This is a slapdown of MBS, who the administration views as reckless and ruthless,” Miller said, using an abbreviation for the crown prince. “The king’s health is not great, but it’s less about the king than it is about making it clear that MBS is no longer the main point of contact.”
The US-Saudi relationship isn’t entirely broken. Officials in the Biden administration have said they want to help the Saudis be better able to defend themselves against Iranian aggression, and the U.S. is expected to work closely with the kingdom’s authorities to help bring about an end to the Saudi-led war in neighboring Yemen.
Even though he is the kingdom’s de facto ruler, the crown prince became a pariah in much of official Washington after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. A United Nations-led investigation implicated senior Saudi officials who reported directly to the crown prince in the killing, an accusation rejected by the kingdom’s officials.
Despite those conclusions, Trump and his administration, in particular son-in-law Jared Kushner, remained close to Prince Mohammed after the murder and avoided blaming him for Khashoggi’s death. Trump defended the close relationship, saying billions of dollars in U.S. weapons sales to the kingdom would just go to American rivals or countries like China or Russia if the U.S. pushed back.
Avril Haines, Biden’s director of national intelligence, has vowed to release an unclassified CIA report into Khashoggi’s killing that is likely to embarrass the crown prince and further underscore the fraying ties.
Martin Indyk, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, said recasting the relationship is “meant to send a signal that President Biden wants certain things from the crown prince, such as an end to the war in Yemen and a different approach to dissent at home.”
Biden “will really want to see the crown prince respond to those things sooner rather than later,” Indyk said. “Until MBS does that, I think Biden will be dealing with the king.”
A White House official, who asked not to be identified discussing the change, said Psaki’s comment simply signals a return to long-standing diplomatic process.
In what may have been an effort to appease the Biden administration, Saudi Arabia this month freed prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul after nearly three years in jail.
Responding to a question about the administration’s broader outreach to the Mideast, Psaki said that Biden intends to talk to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “soon.” Israeli government officials have publicly complained that Biden didn’t call the country’s leader earlier in his presidency.
“His first call with a leader in the region will be with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Psaki said, calling Israel “an ally.”