On 26 February, the Biden administration released an intelligence report linking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The report alleges that the crown prince "approved" the assassination. Riyadh has rejected allegations that members of the royal family were aware of the plot.
Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and a reporter, was slain and dismembered in 2018 while inside of the Saudi embassy in the Turkish capital city of Istanbul. After a months-long investigation Saudi authorities charged eight individuals with the murder of the journalist: five were sentenced to 20 years in prison while three others received shorter prison terms. Commenting on the inquiry, Khashoggi's son Salah tweeted: "We affirm our confidence in the Saudi judiciary at all levels, that it has been fair to us and that justice has been achieved."
Biden Administration Exerting Pressure on the House Saud
"By touting the release of the report, Joe Biden is flagging a big red sign to Mohammed bin Salman, a threat, even a blackmail attempt if you wish, in order to give him a clear message that Biden is intent on making a US policy change in the region, and that should MBS not cooperate, he will be named and shamed", says Ghassan Kadi, a Middle East expert and political analyst.
Ahead of the intelligence report's publication, US President Joe Biden and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud held a phone conversation on 25 February discussing regional security, efforts to end the war in Yemen and "destabilising activities" by Iran in the Middle East.
Earlier, the White House signaled that it would return to "counterpart to counterpart" engagement, which meant that, unlike Donald Trump, Biden would communicate directly with the king, not with the crown prince.
Other aspects of US-Saudi cooperation have also undergone changes according to Axios. The Biden administration has declared the end of Washington's support for the Saudi-led coalition and its military operations in Yemen, and has nullified Trump's attempt to designate Yemen's Houthi political opposition movement as a terror organisation, while also putting the sale of cutting edge US weapons deal to the monarchy on hold.
Assessing the developments, the Guardian suggested on 17 February that Biden seeks to "sideline" the crown prince. The media outlet hinted at the possibility that Washington may go so far as to try to force Riyadh "to change the line of succession and demote" the crown prince.
"Biden wants to send a double message to Saudi Arabia: on the one hand, he confirms the continuation of the relations between the two countries, the other hand it appears that the White House rejects the Saudi crown prince," suggested Sara Sherif, a political analyst and Israeli affairs journalist at Al Dostor newspaper.
Biden is unlikely to snub the crown prince, offered Kadi. Washington is additionally not interested in deepening the rift between the US and the kingdom, he added.
Saudi leadership and Crown Prince Mohammed appear to be interested in reducing tensions with the new US administration, according to reports. On 10 February, a Tel Aviv-based reporter for Axios, Barak Ravid, outlined a number of "signals" sent by Riyadh to Washington following Biden's inauguration.
· Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from prison;
· Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan welcomed the appointment of Tim Lenderking, the new US envoy for Yemen;
· Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad announced judicial reforms to "establish civil law in the country for the first time, in addition to Islamic law".
Two Messages to Iran: Yemen Policy & Strike on Syria
Washington's foreign policy changes concerning Yemen should be seen not as a way to demonstrate Biden's "discontent" with the crown prince but as a measure "to appease Iran and to demonstrate to the Iranians that Biden is serious about resuming talks" about the JCPOA nuclear deal, according to Kadi.
Sherif agrees: Biden's decision to remove the armed Houthi political opposition faction from the list of terrorist organizations is a "first goodwill to Iran before the start of the negotiations about the nuclear deal, and to finish the conflict which has been going on from 2015".
The Biden administration has made it clear that the president is interested in returning to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, Washington and Tehran still remain at odds as to who should make the first step. The Islamic republic insists that the White House must first lift all sanctions against the country. The Biden administration, however, is floating the idea of concluding a broader deal with Iran which could include the latter's ballistic missile programme.
"Any deal with Iran will not go smoothly unless America can get the acceptance of the Saudis (and Israel of course, but this is a separate issue)", Kadi suggests. "The Saudis will not accept any American policy change unless pressured, and Biden is basically demonstrating to the Iranians that he is prepared to go as far as working against the interests of Saudi Arabia."
While the Saudis believe that America is their ally, the Biden administration is using a stick-and-carrot approach toward the kingdom as a means of reaching its own objectives in the region, according to the political analyst.
At the same time, the Pentagon's 26 February strike against alleged Iranian-linked fighters in eastern Syria is a signal to Iran to reduce its influence in the Arab republic in exchange for the atomic deal, Kadi offerred. This is how the Biden administration is demonstrating to regional players that Obama-era hawks are ready to "recalibrate" US foreign policy in the Middle East, he believes.