Saudi Arabia’s Response to the Weakening of Relations With the Biden Administration: A Multilateral Coalition

Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman
Credit: U.S. Department of State from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Under Trump, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States was based on Trump’s maximum financial advantage over the monarchy. Saudi Arabia was one of the buyers of American weapons, and on May 20, 2017, Riyadh signed a purchase arms deal with Trump. This deal was worth nearly $110 billion immediately and $350 billion over 10 years. That meant investing and creating jobs in the United States. In a speech to supporters at a campaign rally in April 2019, Trump spoke about his administration’s financial relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: “Saudi Arabia, very rich country. We defend them. We subsidize Saudi Arabia and they have nothing but cash.” Getting money from Saudi King Salman is “easier than collecting $113.57 from a tenant in a bad location in New York City.”

Changes are on the way

After much political squabble with Trump, Biden finally took the helm of the White House, but the new US administration did not follow the same path of kindness and gentleness with the Saudi King. In the first step of change, on Feb. 6, 2021, Biden removed the name of the Houthi group, previously recognized as a terrorist group by President Trump, from the Foreign Terrorist Organization and Specially Designated Global Terrorist lists. Biden’s decision came just a day after he announced his intention to withdraw his support for Saudi Arabia to continue the war in Yemen. Biden further decided on Feb. 26 to refrain from selling “offensive” weapons to Saudi Arabia and to limit arms sales to “defensive” military equipment.

The second step was to tarnish Saudi Arabia’s image on the international stage by publishing a report by US intelligence agencies. The report stated that Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, had been killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul with the approval of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). Following the report, the U.S. Department of State imposed sanctions on 76 Saudi nationals and barred them from obtaining US visas.

The physical removal of the monarchy’s opponents dealt the greatest blow to MBS’s Democratic Prestige, which is why Biden promised during the 2020 election campaign that he would take swift action against the nation for its multiple human rights abuses. At one point, he referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah state” that would “pay the price.”

In response to the weakening of Biden’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has decided to pursue a policy of multilateral alliance with various countries in the region and beyond. King Salman’s goal in pursuing such a policy is, first, to balance US anti-Saudi actions in the region, and second, to change US attitudes toward Riyadh and become a Trump-era friend.

China and Saudi Arabia: Anti-American signals

China is becoming the world’s economic giant and has begun a fierce economic rivalry with the United States. China’s main goal is to pursue economic interests and seize every opportunity to trade and invest in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia with its rich wealth, is in a good position to replace the US with China. The subject of Saudi-Chinese cooperation is broad and in several areas like trade and investment, military relations, scholarship and aid, and nuclear cooperation.

So far, 35 bilateral economic cooperation agreements worth over $28 billion were signed in 2019 at a Saudi-Chinese investment forum in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s serious relationship with China began on Jan. 21, 1990. Their bilateral relations now have expanded considerably, and the volume of trade between the two countries has increased more than 150 times in the past 30 years, from less than 500 million U.S. dollars in 1990 to 78.18 billion dollars in 2019. The Yanbu Aramco Sinopec Refining Company was officially launched and was the first overseas refining and chemical project of the Sinopec oil refinery and also the largest Chinese investment project in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, China built the first light rail in Mecca, 18 kilometers long, valued at 1.8 billion dollars and completed within 16 months. China’s investment in the Saudi city of Neom and the revitalization of the Silk Road, of which Saudi Arabia is a part, could also boost economic and investment cooperation between the two countries.

China and Saudi Arabia began security cooperation five years before the establishment of official diplomatic relations. The first concrete manifestation of Sino-Saudi security cooperation took place in 1985 with the purchase by Saudi Arabia from China of 36 CSS-2 “East Wind” intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and nine launchers. In addition, after the United States and Saudi Arabia failed to agree on the development of nuclear energy in 2020, it was reported that Beijing and Riyadh have begun nuclear cooperation to develop power plants in the kingdom.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia: Intimate friends and not strategic

There is currently no friendly relationship between Turkey and the United States. Turkey’s dispute with Greece and the European Union’s support for Greece, Ankara’s bribery debates over Syrian refugees from the West and Turkey’s insistence on eliminating Syrian Kurds as US allies and the purchase of the S-400 missile systems from Russia have put Turkey under US sanctions and its currency devalued. Saudi Arabia was able to intelligently understand Ankara’s limitations and move forward to engage with it. That is why King Salman spoke in a phone call with Erdogan the day before the G20 summit in Riyadh in November 2020 and talked about the future friendly relations between the two countries. Turkey also warmly welcomed the invitation to repair the economy damaged by the Covid-19 pandemic and lift sanctions on Turkish goods in the Persian Gulf coast states.

One of the goals of Saudi Arabia to improve ties with Turkey goes back to the developments in Yemen. In the Yemeni military-political scene, Saudi Arabia is thinking of overtaking its rival — the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, is the enemy of the thoughts of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, including in Yemen. Both countries are pleased with the physical elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and are pursuing the same procedure in Yemen. However, after Saudi Arabia’s failures in Yemen, Riyadh decided to start its relationship with the Al-Islah Party. Al-Islah was previously blacklisted by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE due to its connection with the Muslim Brotherhood. But Riyadh, realizing that al-Islah is an indispensable part of Yemen’s political fabric, has recently mended ties with the party and supported its alliance with the Hadi government. Unlike the Saudis, the Emiratis and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) have remained firm in opposing both Al-Islah and the Houthis. Riyadh needs the help of Turkey to complete this process, because the Al-Islah Party is the point of entry of Turkey into Yemen, and with its influence over this party, it can help Riyadh advance its goals against UAE.

Saudi Arabia knows that the new U.S. administration, Biden himself and senior Democratic Party officials have little affection for the Crown Prince. Riyadh knows that Democrats were most vocal about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two years ago, and that senior Democrats regularly bring up the cases of political prisoners and other human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s relations with China, Turkey, Russia, Qatar, and even the beginning of relations with the Houthis through the Oman Canal, all show the dynamics of Saudi behavior in the region, which seeks to change Washington’s attitude towards itself.

Mohammad Salami has a Ph.D. in International Relations. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. His area of expertise is Middle East issues, especially Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the GCC countries. Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.