Joe Biden’s administration has expressed its hope of “recalibrating” US relations with Saudi Arabia while suggesting it considers King Salman to be the US president’s equal and not his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is widely considered to be the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked at her daily briefing on Tuesday to follow up an answer she had given at a session a week earlier on whether the US still considers Israel and Saudi Arabia to be its allies.
She answered affirmatively on Israel and said Mr Biden’s first call with a Middle Eastern leader will be with the country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
On Saudi Arabia, Ms Psaki said: “You know, we’ve made clear from the beginning that we’re going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia and that – you know, President Biden – one of the questions there was also, just to go back to the context of it – whether he would be speaking with MBS.
“And part of that is going back to engagement, counterpart to counterpart. The president’s counterpart is King Salman, and I expect that, in appropriate time, he would have a conversation with him. I don’t have a prediction of the timeline on that.
She continued: “I’ll also say that, you know, we have – Saudi Arabia is in a position where they’re defending themselves from threats from the region. They have critical self-defence needs, and we will continue to work with them on those, even as we make clear areas where we have disagreements and where we have concerns. And that’s certainly a shift from the approach of the prior administration.”
While Donald Trump preferred to deal with MBS and made his first overseas trip as president to Riyadh, Ms Psaki’s comments are likely to be seen as an attempt to step back from the influential crown prince, accused by US intelligence officials of having ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Avril Haines, Mr Biden’s new US director of national intelligence, pledged during her Senate confirmation hearing last month that she would “absolutely” provide Congress with an an unclassified report on Khashoggi’s assassination.
“This is a slapdown of MBS, who the administration views as reckless and ruthless,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Bloomberg.
The promise to deal primarily with King Salman has attracted a mixed response, however.
“They can’t get anything done if they don’t deal with MBS,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi businessman with links to the royal family, in conversation with Politico.
“The king is functioning, but he’s very old. He’s very much chairman of the board. He’s not involved in day-to-day issues. Eventually, they’re going to want to be talking directly to MBS.”
The US and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed largely positive bilateral relations since a diplomatic channel was first established in 1933, agreeing on opposition to the Soviet Union and uniting on regional oil industry interests but also disagreeing significantly on issues from Israel to George W Bush’s War on Terror.