As Biden Marks One Year in Office, a Riyadh-Based Analyst Says Relations Are at Lowest Ebb
Although in 2021 Washington inked a multibillion arms deal with Riyadh, the diplomatic ties have been rather lukewarm. High profile Saudi officials have not been invited to visit the US, and their concerns about Iran and other issues have largely fallen on deaf ears.
It's been one year since Washington has welcomed its new Commander-in-Chief, Joe Biden, who vowed to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, fight the coronavirus pandemic and make a change in the foreign policy of his country.
In a way, he kept that promise. Since he took over, he's made several U-turns from the decisions of the previous administration. Such was the case with the Iranian issue, with the new government now pursuing a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.
The change has also occurred on the Israeli-Palestinian front, with Biden restoring $235 million in funds for the UN agency UNRWA.
It has also been felt in the Gulf, primarily Saudi Arabia, whose leadership didn't appreciate the sudden change in rhetoric and the allegations the new administration made that Riyadh had committed human rights violations.
Now, one year down the line after Biden took over, Ahmed Al Ibrahim, a Riyadh-based political analyst, says nothing has really changed.
"The relations with Saudi Arabia are being managed but right now they are at their lowest point. Big and new American companies don't touch ground in Saudi Arabia and the general feeling is that they are exerting minimum efforts into maintaining those ties," he claims.
Despite that low ebb, Washington did seal a number of deals with Riyadh. The major one was approved in November of last year. Back then, the US okayed a $650 million sale of air-to-air missiles and it seemed that the relations with the Gulf nation were back on track.
In reality, it was only a facade and on the diplomatic front they remained lukewarm. Biden has never spoken to the Crown Prince of the Kingdom, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). He preferred to place his first official call to his father and even that a month after he took office.
MBS hasn't visited the US since Biden took office, and none of the other high profile officials from Riyadh have made the trip in that time.
That attitude has also been felt vis-a-vis Saudi concerns over the negotiations Washington has been leading with Iran. Riyadh views the Islamic Republic as its main regional rival and has repeatedly said that an agreement with Tehran could be problematic.
The Saudis claimed such a deal would enable Iran to gain time and keep developing its nuclear arsenal, that could potentially be used against them. When those concerns have been voiced to the US administration, they have largely fallen on deaf ears.
"There has been a lot of disappointment from the way they have been handling the Iranian file. They have not been decisive, they haven't stood up [for us]. They only promised but things have never changed on the ground," says Al Ibrahim.
Little sympathy has also been shown on the Yemeni front. Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in the Yemeni saga for years, fighting there the Houthi rebels allegedly linked to Iran. In February 2021 Washington decided to lift their designation from the list of terrorist organisations, something that sent a message to Riyadh that their fears were not taken into consideration.
Change of Direction
Al Ibrahim says it is difficult to pinpoint the reason that stood behind those decisions. It could be that the Biden administration wanted to distance itself from MBS, whose name has been linked by the US to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
It could also be, says the analyst, that Biden wanted to focus his attention on America's confrontation with China as well as the country's internal problems, such as COVID-19 and high unemployment, and it could be that the general attitude has changed, with the US starting to care little about its allies and their preferences.
"Since 2021 the West shown that it no longer cared about its shining appearance. Their new slogan has become that they are playing openly and fiercely, and whoever opposes it gets a cold shoulder."
Looking at Biden's three remaining years in office (assuming the 79-year-old head of state doesn't seek re-election), the Riyadh-based analyst says the future does not look bright for the relationship between the two countries.
"I don't think there will be a progress in those ties until there is a new president. Only then we will be able to ignite those relations and bring them back to life."