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The US-Saudi partnership under new administration | Analyst Picks| RiskMap 2021

Saudi-US

The US-Saudi partnership under new administration

Graham Griffiths | Associate Director

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) may have to swallow a few bitter pills in 2021 to make nice with the new US administration, but both he and President-elect Joe Biden will likely be keen to keep the relationship afloat. However, in an outlier scenario, there is the possibility of the relationship deteriorating rapidly, disrupting US arms sales and deepening reputational risks to foreign companies working in the kingdom. 

Similar predictions were made when President Donald Trump accused the kingdom of ripping off the US. In reality, the US-Saudi partnership flourished as Riyadh capitalised on Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy. 

The same fears now recur with the incoming administration, as Biden pledged during his campaign to treat the Saudis as “the pariah that they are”.  Saudi Arabia will dismiss such statements as mere rhetoric. The kingdom, its supporters say, has forged working relations with US administrations regardless of their identity. Moreover, the relationship is supported by Washington’s defense, intelligence and diplomatic establishments. 

However, legislation to halt arms sales to the kingdom in 2019 only failed due to a Trump veto. If Congress tries again, Biden will be unlikely to block it. Similarly, many in Congress have called for greater accountability over human rights issues. The Biden administration could oversee a stinging rebuke of the kingdom even as it begins outreach to Riyadh’s archrival, Iran. Biden’s focus on climate change is also likely to make him less interested in protecting the US shale industry, and thus less solicitous of the kingdom in its role as the globe’s swing producer. 

In recent years, the kingdom has reacted aggressively to perceived slights. While Riyadh cannot treat Washington the same way, MbS may feel that he has little choice but to respond to moves by Washington that he feels undermine his legitimacy. The kingdom has been taking steps to diversify, and MbS could seek to demonstrate his independence from Washington by, for example, working with China to develop a domestic nuclear energy programme or signing an arms deal with Russia. This could kick-start a dynamic similar to the one that has plagued US-Turkey relations recently.

Early moves by Riyadh to curry favour with the incoming administration – taking steps to soften the boycott of Qatar or releasing detained women’s rights activists – could head off this potentially vicious circle. If not, a US attempt to recalibrate the Saudi relationship could threaten to test this long-standing partnership more than any event since 9/11.  

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