Shortly after US President Joe Biden’s inauguration, his administration vowed to conduct a strategic review of the United States’ relations with Saudi Arabia. The administration aims to shift US foreign policy away from the transactionalism of Donald Trump and towards a new emphasis on values and human rights. Nonetheless, the recent release of the CIA’s declassified report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was a rather anti-climatic event.
After weeks of anticipation, the general feeling is that the document – or rather its executive summary, the only part that was released – generates more heat than light. It does not include new information, conclusive evidence, or compelling language, instead “assessing” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) “approved an operation … to capture or kill” Khashoggi. The Biden administration then announced that it was working on a “Khashoggi ban” to restrict visas for anyone found to have participated in state-sponsored extraterritorial operations against dissidents or journalists, including 76 Saudis. Critically, however, the crown prince is not among them.
To those expecting tough punitive measures targeting MBS, the saga around the report looks more like virtue signalling to a domestic audience than a shift in foreign policy. Biden delayed the publication of the report by two days, as he wanted to speak to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz first. The White House justified its choice not to sanction MBS by declaring that the US does not impose such measures on foreign leaders, thereby implicitly recognising the crown prince’s leadership role. Biden’s current refusal to directly engage with MBS rather than King Salman may be humiliating for the younger Saudi leader, but it does not threaten his hold on power.
While there may be a clear cooling of relations between Washington and Riyadh, marked by a freeze of offensive weapons sales to the Kingdom, these developments belie rumours that the US wants to facilitate a soft coup against MBS in Riyadh. This is despite the fact that Biden said during his presidential campaign that there was “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia”. While his frustration with Saudi Arabia and particularly MBS has grown in recent years, Biden clearly sees the partnership with the country as an important dimension of US policy on the Middle East. Washington knows it needs Riyadh’s backing in diplomacy to end the war in Yemen, and wants to avoid repeating the Obama-era mistake of pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran without the support of regional actors.
The US seems rather focused on recalibrating its relationship with Saudi Arabia to change the behaviour of MBS – in a way that certainly hints at an end to the love-in under Trump. Indeed, like other Middle Eastern states, Saudi Arabia has already shifted its domestic and regional policies closer to the vision of the new US administration. To respond to the new American focus on human rights, Riyadh recently released political prisoners such as Loujain al-Hathloul and Walid al-Fitaihi, and introduced a moratorium on the death penalty for minors and those convicted of drug-related crimes. Aiming to be identified as part of the solution rather than a cause of regional tensions, Saudi Arabia reconciled with Qatar – a process that culminated on 5 January in the Al-Ula Declaration.
Europeans can encourage more of this pragmatism in Riyadh. They should now look to work alongside the US to elicit other positive steps from the Saudis.
It is an old pattern that, when US-Saudi relations sour, the Saudis turn to Europe. This happened in the aftermath of 9/11 and (to a lesser extent) during the presidency of Barack Obama, and is happening again now. Convinced that the Biden team will listen to Europeans, Riyadh has already sought to improve its relationships with both national governments in Europe and the European Union. In late 2020 and early 2021, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan met with more of his European counterparts than he had before covid-19 made travel difficult. This involved the first official visit by a Saudi foreign minister to Portugal – which has taken up the rotating presidency of the EU – and meetings in Brussels with European Council President Charles Michel and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell.
Saudi Arabia has revitalised negotiations on a cooperation agreement with the EU. And Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio recently met MBS in Riyadh, where the two signed a Memorandum of Understanding on establishing a strategic partnership between their countries. Saudi Arabia is also engaged in diplomacy with Greece and Cyprus, including as a full participant in “Philia”, an informal grouping that was established by Greece in February and that includes the United Arab Emirates, Cyprus, Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, and France.
But Europeans should resist the temptation to exploit the strain in the US-Saudi relationship for short-term, narrow, and self-interested gains. In the past, Europeans have not been shy about reaping the strategic and economic rewards that can come with stepping in for the US or the US defence industry. The United Kingdom’s decision not to follow the US lead in stopping the sale of offensive arms to Saudi Arabia, along with French President Emmanuel Macron’s mooted upcoming visit to Riyadh, suggests that some Europeans sense such an opportunity again.
Instead, Europeans should closely coordinate among themselves and with the US to make the most of the post-Trump shift in Saudi foreign policy. Like the US, Europe needs to press Saudi Arabia to take constructive steps to strengthen its relations with its Western partners. Europeans should stress the importance of MBS fulfilling his commitments to engage in meaningful domestic reforms, moving towards the abolition of the death penalty, the end of the guardianship system for women, and legislated religious freedom. On foreign policy, they should press Riyadh to support de-escalation and diplomacy in conflicts across the region.
This is especially true on Iran, the most sensitive issue for Saudi Arabia and a key one for both the US and Europe. To persuade the Saudis to give diplomacy with Iran a chance – and not to sabotage such efforts behind the scenes – Europeans should engage in a collective political and security effort to reassure Riyadh that a return to the nuclear deal would not mean turning a blind eye to Iran’s regional aggression.
Saudi Arabia is concerned that the US has signalled its intent to accept Iranian influence in Yemen, by ending its support for the Saudi-led military campaign there and reversing its designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation. To prepare the ground for regional security talks, Europeans should work with the US to provide diplomatic engagement and security guarantees that address this concern. They should also emphasise that Saudi Arabia will need to make compromises in support of sustainable regional de-escalation, making clear that further Western security assistance will be under threat if the country does not move in this direction.
The White House’s strategic review of US-Saudi relations need not push Riyadh into a corner or permanently damage the relationship between the sides. ‘Critical engagement’ can, if handled diplomatically, lead to good policy. Europeans have a strategic interest in coordinating with the US and working with Saudi Arabia to find a way forward.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.