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Media Reactions – 25 Days of Biden

Below is a quick review of recent Saudi media reactions thus far to US policies towards Saudi Arabia and a number of regional issues – including a summary of main narratives, a note on what Biden administration policy seems to be, and quotes from some of the more prominent commentators (especially Abdelrahman al-Rashed, for reasons noted previously).

Additionally – Ahmed al-Omran, editor/writer of Riyadh Bureau, covers all sorts of Saudi-related developments on a tri-weekly basis – if you follow anything related to Saudi politics & policy for a living (or for fun!) I wholeheartedly encourage you to subscribe.

On the US-Saudi Relationship

  1. Summary: Remaining US interests in the region require cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

  2. Little indication that the Biden administration is planning on a dramatic rupture in the relationship, with US analysts describing policy more as “imposing boundaries” on the relationship.

From Abdelrahman al-Rashed:

The importance [of the US-Saudi relationship] is growing as long as the top US policy priorities are competition from China, energy, nuclear armament, and terrorism. All of them need regional cooperation with a country like Saudi Arabia. These are the real considerations driving the relationship, not the media disputes and the quotes of US officials… The Democrats, who are in power today, are not ignorant of the importance of allies like Saudi Arabia. The reasons are profound and deep [national] interests. And they realize that Saudi Arabia has changed considerable with the big changes introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Biden and Saudi Arabia,” February 7, 2021
The American military withdrawal from the region began, and political activity decreased accordingly. But the following years showed that things weren’t that simple. The Iranian nuclear threat is a global, albeit remote, threat. Terrorism could return and threaten the United States at home. And China itself is advancing towards Asia and Africa and seizing the areas that it has drawn on the map of its huge “Belt and Road” project… Pakistan has almost become Chinese, after it It was previously in the American space. The Middle Eastern oil states are very important as they are the prime energy suppliers, and Saudi Arabia is the largest oil exporter to China. This makes Washington reinterpret the concept of higher interests in light of its international rivalry [with China]. Biden’s Policies and the Region,” February 8, 2021

On a New Iran Deal

  1. Summary: A nucleal deal is possible – but only if Biden applies pressure and takes into account Iran’s regional activities. Biden’s advantage, though, is that it is at least plausible for Iran’s government to imagine Biden letting up on sanctions… some day (vs. Trump).

  2. Daniel Benaim and Jake Sullivan (now both Biden-administration officials) published an article (“America’s Opportunity in the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, 5.22.2020) last summer suggesting the possibility of combining a renewed Iran deal with a separate follow-on agreement addressing Iran’s regional activities.

Abdelrahman al-Rashed

Biden can build on Trump’s achievements and propose ending the confrontation and wars with Iran, by amending the Comprehensive Agreement (JCPOA), meaning nuclear, so that it includes the region and prevents Iranian expansion beyond the borders, and prevents nuclear armament. The danger is that Iran thinks that Biden is weak, and his democratic administration has no appetite for challenge and confrontation, and this will push Tehran not to concede. Here the perception is more dangerous than the truth, whatever the truth… For Biden to give in to Khamenei is easier than bowing to Trump, and he will not bend without severe pressure, at which time Iran will be ready for a political solution that complements the nuclear agreement project that Obama failed to achieve. This, in turn, will lead to multiple solutions in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and eventually even Israel. The key is to take advantage of the sanctions, not let go of them. Biden is Better Able to Solve the Iran Problem,” January 31, 2021

Other commentators (particularly in English) were far less optimistic, particularly when combined with reactions to the Biden administration’s Yemen policy.

There is nothing creative about today’s return to the Obama Middle East doctrine. We will see the same phony arguments being used, the same false balance between Iran and KSA, the same appeasement of Iran and its networks, the same mistakes, and the same consequences. — Mohammed Khalid Alyahya (@7yhy) February 11, 2021

On Yemen

  1. Summary: Regarding Yemen policy, Biden has no choice but to engage with Saudi Arabia and the coalition if he wants to secure a political solution that keeps Yemen from becoming a failed state. Furthermore, ensuring Saudi Arabia’s security will make it impossible to ignore the threat posed by the Houthis.

  2. Ambiguities in the Biden administration’s statements leave open the possibility that they might assist Saudi Arabia in retaliation against the Houthis; counterterrorism operations in Yemen are likewise ongoing, and have never come under serious pressure from Congress. Still, the administration faces yet-more pressure to cancel yet-more arms sales to the Kingdom.

  3. Ahmed Nagi @ Carnegie’s Beirut center has a broader overview of Saudi reactions to Biden policy on Yemen.

From Abdelrahman al-Rashed:

Biden surprised us when he pledged to protect Saudi Arabia from attacks by the Iranian Houthis, a step beyond even the previous Trump administration’s standards. On the other hand, Riyadh has renewed its willingness to accept a peaceful solution. Biden appointed a special envoy to Yemen, just as Trump hadhis envoy before. During the next short period, we expect one of two things: either the Houthis will stop targeting Saudi cities, and this is a positive development that will contribute to paving the way to a political solution, or they will send their missiles and drones across the border, so that Saudi F-15 fighters will cross over to the other side. In the second case, that is, the Houthis’ violation of the American armistice, then Washington will become a party to the battle, by virtue of its commitment, and Riyadh will have its justifications to resume the response to the aggression. Biden is Better Able to Solve the Iran Problem,” January 31, 2021
 The United States has no interest in leaving Yemen, for example, a failed state and a hothouse where the Houthi militias and Al-Qaeda grow and come under Iran’s control. The US does not want to fight there, and therefore has no choice but to support the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, Washington wants to satisfy the organizations that call to stop the war for humanitarian reasons, but it does not have a solution that ends the true cause of the tragedy, which is the Houthi takeover of Yemen. On the other hand, Biden wants to support the coalition and strengthen his country’s influence without direct military involvement.  In fact, the previous two Obama and Trump administrations were in favor of the coalition and its arms sales, despite statements suggesting to the contrary. Even as the hostile media applauded Biden for removing the Houthi name from the list of terrorism by the Biden administration to reflect the Trump administration’s decision, the decision is consistent with his search for a peaceful solution as it is not possible to negotiate with the Houthis if they are on the terrorist list. Biden’s Policies and the Region,” February 8, 2021

Likewise, in a review of the US-Saudi relationship published by the Independent Arabia (Feb. 7), analyst Hisham al-Ghanem stressed that the administration’s review of past policies “did not come as a surprise to Saudi Arabia, as Washington’s desire to end the Yemen war was not a secret, and Riyadh shares that desire. He added, ‘The Yemeni or Houthi problem is an extension of the Iranian problem, and it is impossible to separate the two from each other in any approach to expected political solutions. This understanding is somewhat evident in the recent US statements and actions, although not to the extent required.'”

Furthermore, “although the Biden administration made it clear that ending the Yemeni conflict is one of its priorities, Al-Ghanem believes that the United States does not have a strategy to solve the crisis yet, indicating that the appointment of Lenderking is a first step towards forming this strategy, and that stopping military clashes is an American goal, but it does not seem that there is a clear road map that follows this goal.”

Domestically, other commentators likewise initially downplayed the idea that the Biden administration’s policies change all that much with respect to the war in Yemen. At Okaz, longstanding columnists Hamood Abu Talib and Khalid Suleiman both emphasized Biden’s remarks supporting Saudi Arabia as well as the Kingdom’s support for a political settlement in Yemen.

President Biden’s statements were clear and direct regarding the commitment to support the Kingdom in “defending its sovereignty and its lands from the threat of forces supported by Iran.”… The President’s affirmation of the need to reach a comprehensive political solution in Yemen is completely consistent with the vision and direction of the Kingdom, which has been seeking a political solution since the start of the Yemeni crisis, and did not resort to military operations until after it became within the range of Houthi attacks with Iranian weapons… Hamood Abu Talib, Okaz, 2.7.2021
The announcement by US President Biden to stop supporting hostilities in Yemen does not mean anything, as the United States does not participate in any combat actions against the Houthis. US support is limited to exchanging intelligence information with the coalition, often related to monitoring the operation of missile launch batteries targeting Saudi Arabia. These are part of the pledges to protect the security and sovereignty of Saudi Arabia, which Biden emphasized in the same declaration! The United States needs Saudi Arabia as much Saudi Arabia needs it, and state relations are based on the bases of mutual interests and joint cooperation! Khalid al-Suleiman, Okaz, 2.8.2021

Still, the one-two combination of the Biden administration removing the foreign terrorist designation from the Houthis and then the Houthis’ claimed attacks on the airport of Abha, a Saudi city in the South, have prompted greater consternation. Media coverage certainly noted the contradiction, while commentators soon followed:

We were and still are annoyed at the weak international dealings with the Houthis, which encouraged them to persist in meddling with Yemen and conducting repeated attacks on the regions of the Kingdom. It seems that the new American administration will be no better, as it is in a clear contradiction between its claim to be keen on the security of the Kingdom and its soft dealings with the Houthi militia, and between its support for a peaceful solution and its unwillingness to take a decisive position on the Houthi rebellion. Hamood Abu Talib, “The American Position in the Yemen Crisis is Contradictory,” Okaz, 2.14.2021
The American administration took the initiative to remove the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group from the list of terrorist organizations hours after it targeted a civilian airport in Saudi Arabia and hit a commercial passenger aircraft. What message do the Houthis receive and what message is the US administration sending?! America and European countries declare their commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security, protection of its security and territorial sovereignty, but at the same time they freeze arms deals, halt further exports, and limit Saudi Arabia’s ability to defend itself. So what commitment are they talking about?! Khalid al-Suleiman, Okaz, 2.14.2021

Human Rights

  1. Human rights concerns are a dead letter where US partners in the Middle East are concerned; the Biden administration won’t push human rights concerns at the expense of interests.

  2. Some evidence that human rights won’t be an overriding policy priority of the Biden administration in the region – support for human rights show up 9th of 11 policy recommendations in a review of the US-Saudi relationship by now-Biden-appointee Daniel Benaim (right after “Maintain Cooperation on Counterterrorism and Other Areas of Mutual Interest”).

  3. Still, it is also pretty clear that a number of activists – including Loujain al-Hathloul – would still be imprisoned if not for Biden’s electoral victory in November. At a minimum, this means a return to the status-quo-ante of US administrations calling out the most egregious human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials pretending not to hear while quietly resolving cases in question.

As for Washington’s statements about Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the countries of the region about their handling of what [Washington] considers human rights issues and demands for the release of detainees, it is a custom that is repeated with most American governments, but [Washington] cannot force regional governments to change their laws or release those whom they consider a threaten to their security. The current US administration may leave the White House in a few years, long before these convicts serve their time and are released.  That is why betting on Biden and his administration to change the situation or impose pressure is inconsistent with the imperative to put the higher interests of these countries before the interests of individuals…  Biden’s Policies and the Region,” February 8, 2021

Further, from Hamood Abu Talib:

Here we are talking about human rights in their true meaning and legally recognized standards. As for confusing them with outlaw actions that harm security and social peace, or threaten overriding national interests. This is another matter entirely, and it is unreasonable to arbitrarily cram it under the banner of human rights, and no party will accept interference on these matters. This is a matter of sovereignty and national security subject to the Kingdom’s laws and regulations. Hamood Abu Talib, Okaz, 2.8.2021
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