Biden turns up the heat on MBS

Open Season

February 27, 2021 - 21:45

TEHRAN – The new U.S. administration has turned up the heat on Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in a bid to reign in his worst instincts.

The crown prince, also known as MBS, has been anxious about Joe Biden right from the start, waiting to see how the new U.S. president would treat him after weeks of harsh criticism of Saudi Arabia’s track record in violating human rights, most notably the 2018 killing of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Biden assumed office in January with one major promise to reset U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia while calling out the kingdom for human rights violations.

The Biden administration released an intelligence report on Friday incriminating MBS for the Khashoggi murder.

“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key advisor and members of Mohammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” the report, issued by Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said.

This report was the latest in a series of punitive measures adopted by the Biden administrations against Riyadh. The new U.S. administration began by suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia and ceasing military support for the country’s ongoing war in Yemen. It also removed Yemen’s Ansarullah movement from the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

“This war has to end. And to underscore our commitment, we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales,” President Biden said in a speech at the State Department while underling the U.S. commitment to ensuring Saudi Arabia’s security and territorial integrity.

The Biden administration’s steps against the Saudi crown prince sit well with the liberals and progressives who have long criticized the Trump administration for embracing MBS and refusing to punish him for his wrongdoings in Yemen and at home.

Trump and his officials strongly refused to blame bin Salman for killing Khashoggi. Instead, they provided political and military support to him.

This “blind alliance” seems to have come to an end, with Biden vowing to review the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But this review should not be seen as a break from the U.S. traditional alliance with Saudi Arabia. Biden is believed to put pressure on bin Salman to prevent him from pursuing destructive policies such as the Yemen War and undercutting any prospect for a renewed talks between Iran and the West over the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Ever since 2017, MBS has made a range of unmeasured moves that brought him into disrepute all over the world. He arrested his rival princes and tortured them, detained Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and forced him to resign, cracked down on dissidents and human rights activists, and most notably ordered the killing and dismembering Khashoggi. His long list of malfeasance provided Washington with enormous leverage to reign in him when needed.

The Biden administration simply started using this leverage to get more concessions from the Saudis. Some pundits believe that the Biden administration, by releasing the secret report incriminating MBS, seeks to set the stage for ousting him and replacing him with a more favorable and more balanced prince.

But others, particularly those in the region, hold that the Biden White House is simply using his leverage to reign in him and ensure that he will not undermine the administration’s upcoming diplomatic overtures in the region.

The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper said Washington is putting pressure on MBS with the purpose of ensuring bin Salman’s obedience. “Bin Salman is guilty until his obedience is proven,” the newspaper said in an article penned by Malak Hamoud.

In a separate article, the newspaper said the U.S. does not want to punish MBS, rather it wants to “humiliate” and “weaken” him.

The New York Times said the U.S. won’t punish bin Salman because doing so will inflict too high costs on the U.S.

“President Biden has decided that the diplomatic cost of directly penalizing Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is too high, according to senior administration officials, despite a detailed American intelligence finding that he directly approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” The New York Times wrote, adding that Biden’s newly formed national security team advised him that there was no way to formally bar the heir to the Saudi crown from entering the United States, or to weigh criminal charges against him, without breaching the relationship with one of America’s key Arab allies.

Media outlets close to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates say that the Biden administration aims to prevent Saudi Arabia from throwing a monkey wrench into the U.S. efforts to revive the JCPOA.

“The Khashoggi report is the new administration’s card to push Riyadh to amend its rhetoric toward the Iranian nuclear program,” the UAE-owned London-based Al-Arab newspaper wrote, adding that the Khashoggi report is aimed to distance Saudi Arabia from any kind of arrangements related to Iran’s nuclear issue.

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