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MENA: Saudi-US relations under the spotlight

Table of Contents

  • The US intelligence community assessment on the Khashoggi assassination is not as damaging as feared.
  • Biden’s strategy is not to downgrade the relationship, but instead to make it conditions-based.
  • Congressional pressure is likely to grow to punish those involved publicly, and to restrict arms sales

The long-awaited US intelligence community assessment that was released last Friday was far less damaging to US-Saudi relations than it was feared to be. The document was as narrow as can be, only reporting what the intelligence community assessed with high confidence. In so doing, the document swept away an array of information, some of it partial or inconclusive, that could have been much more damning. In particular, the report neither cast any light nor speculated in any way on the central question: whether senior Saudis had ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, rather than merely his forcible return to the Kingdom.

The Biden administration released the document pursuant to a provision in the 2020 Defense Authorization Act that the Trump administration had ignored. But the Biden team seems also to have tried to limit the impact. The report’s terseness, its release on a Friday afternoon, and Biden’s previewing it to King Salman all suggest a desire to downplay the impact.

Overall, the administration appears to be moving beyond the Khashoggi assassination to adopt a forward-looking strategy toward the Kingdom that seeks to make the US relationship with Saudi Arabia more conditions based. As National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan put it in an interview in June 2020, “Should we basically say, ‘In part, our long-term support for your country is going to be bound up in the directionality of progress and reform?’ I think we should.”

From a US government perspective, this approach is intended to maximize Saudi Arabia’s opportunities for success and minimize support for the sorts of extremism and violence in the Kingdom that have undermined US-Saudi ties in the past. As Saudi Arabia is arguably embarked on a comprehensive reform program that addresses many of the same priorities, the Biden approach reinforces many of the trends already underway in the Kingdom and aligns the United States with much of the Kingdom’s agenda.

Yet, for many in Congress and the media, the Biden administration’s approach to the issue represents a complete loss of will. During the campaign, Biden promised to make the Saudis “the pariah that they are,” but the administration’s circumspection in the last week suggests second thoughts given the depth and complexity of US-Saudi ties.

For Democrats in Congress who strained at the Trump administration’s sustained courtship of Saudi Arabia find this an especially bitter pill. Disappointed to lack a White House ally in efforts to pressure the Kingdom, they are likely to introduce a number of measures to limit weapons sales, to encumber ties between US persons and people named in the DNI report, and to force reporting on Saudi actions at home and abroad. While few if any of these provisions will become law, their persistence in debate will dissuade some US investors (especially in the arts, culture and education fields) from activities in Saudi Arabia, and they will push Saudis to diversify their international ties.

The media’s focus is more likely to remain on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who provides a focal point for their dismay at Khashoggi’s killing. The extent of journalists’ passions is indicated by their insistence on going beyond the intelligence community’s assessment of the attack on Khashoggi. That assessment pointedly did not implicate the crown prince in the murder, but rather stated that he had authorized an operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi. The report said clearly, “we do not know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him.”

Two things remain unclear. One is what lasting impact, if any, these events will have on international investors. The COVID pandemic has put a halt to much travel and conferencing, and this firestorm may die down by time activities resume, perhaps in the fall. But with ESG a rising investment criterion, some may feel the scales are tipping away from Saudi investments.

The other is how Saudi succession may play into US-Saudi ties. As long as Salman remains King, the US can avoid most direct contact with MBS. If MBS were to become king, however, it would be harder to avoid engagement. If MBS becomes king at a time when feelings toward Saudi Arabia are raw in Congress or the press, it will be even harder to thread the needle.

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MENA: Saudi-US relations under the spotlight

The US intelligence community assessment on the Khashoggi assassination is not as damaging as feared. Biden’s strategy is not to downgrade the relationship, but