After years of easy access to the White House, the Saudi Crown Prince gets a taste of being locked out of power.
For a rich and powerful Saudi prince who is used to being the centre of attention and fawned over as he sits in his fabulously opulent palaces, it is likely that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s teeth were grinding when he received word last night that he was being “downgraded” by US President Joe Biden.
The announcement from the White House made it clear that it intended to “recalibrate” its relationship with Saudi Arabia and, in future, high level diplomacy would be conducted “counterpart-to-counterpart”.
“The President’s counterpart is King Salman and I expect at an appropriate time he will have a conversation with him,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said with a tone of finality.
Meanwhile, the crown prince, better known by the initials MBS, could expect to deal with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as he currently holds the Saudi portfolio of defence minister, a significant snub considering the all-access pass he enjoyed under the Trump administration.
MBS’ ‘vision’ has made him a pariah
Of course, Biden slapping down MBS comes off the back of his frequent attacks on Saudi Arabia during his election campaign as a way of showing that he would be different to Trump and would take America down a more “principled” diplomatic route than his predecessor.
Teaming up with neighbouring UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, MBS’ vision for the region was a total modernisation but without any democratisation. MBS and his allies wanted to reshape the Middle East into a westernised clique of powerful monarchies and sheikhdoms, even eschewing the native Arabic language and preferring English when naming new vanity projects such as MBS’ ambitious “The Line” megacity.
While MBS remains deeply popular in Saudi itself as he is seen as being the driving force behind a radical shift away from the conservative values the Kingdom became renowned for, internationally he has become somewhat of a pariah.
MBS has been repeatedly linked to the murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Everyone from the CIA to the UN laid blame on figures close to the prince, and there seems to be little chance that they would have dared to act without his express approval.
While championing a vision of secular westernisation at home which has earned him accolades amongst some of his subjects, MBS simultaneously arrested women’s rights activists who called for various freedoms from women being able to drive to not needing the permission of male guardians to conduct their affairs. He was also behind a crackdown on religious scholars such as Salman al Awdah, Omar al Muqbil, and others, simply for criticising Riyadh’s drive against Islamic values.
Perhaps most devastating of all is his military misadventure in Yemen. It is absolutely fair to say that MBS was not the architect of the Yemen war. The Houthi rebels, who only make up some 15 percent of the country, triggered the conflict by subverting the will of the Arab Spring, taking direction from Iran, and invading the capital Sanaa in 2014. It was obvious that Riyadh would not tolerate one of Tehran’s allies on its southern border in Yemen while another proxy controlled its northern border with Iraq.
However, MBS’ conduct of the war has seen Yemen face one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, with 20 million now facing starvation and malnutrition and frequent Houthi attacks using drones and missiles within Saudi territory itself.
What was supposed to be a short, sharp war using overwhelming airpower has now turned into a six-year slog with no end in sight and the only major gains being made by the UAE capturing strategic territory in Socotra at Saudi’s expense.
Biden needs Saudi, not MBS
With Trump at the helm, all MBS’ ambitions seemed on the cusp of realisation. His personal relationship with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, ensured that he received all the arms sales and intelligence he wanted to win the war in Yemen, and he was shielded from repercussions over the Khashoggi murder and the arrest of women’s rights activists.
However, Biden needs to show his voters that he is a clear break with the short interregnum represented by Trump’s unique brand of politics, and he is therefore keen to sideline MBS in favour of King Salman who is more his own rank and closer to his own age, with the elderly king now 85-years-old.
Snubbing MBS sends a message that the Biden White House perceives him to be an errant child that has had his fun, but now it is time for the grown ups to do the talking. However, Biden may face a significant hurdle should King Salman abdicate in favour of his 35-year-old son.
After all, Washington still needs Riyadh, and it is in the United States’ interests for stable continuity in their long-time ally and malleable friend. Riyadh’s influence on other Gulf Cooperation Council states, its standing and prestige as the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam, and its fabulous wealth and influence on global oil markets makes it an indispensable ally. When and if MBS becomes king, Biden will be forced to engage with him.
There are already clear signs that MBS intends to be Washington’s man in Riyadh by showing how pliable he can be.
First, he facilitated Trump’s Middle Eastern agenda and now, under a new administration, he has already sent out signals that he is willing to play ball by first mending fences with Qatar and then releasing women’s rights campaigner Loujain al Hathloul after she spent three years in prison despite committing no crimes.
Now that Biden has expressed his desire to see an end to the war in Yemen and has curbed Saudi arms acquisitions, it is perhaps only a matter of time before MBS accepts defeat and recalibrates his own policies to match that of the new American administration.
This series of climbdowns shows that MBS realises that, although he may be popular at home, he is not indestructible, and he needs the United States to be happy or else he risks losing everything if Washington decides to throw its weight behind rival princes seeking to ascend the throne.
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