Commentary |
28 February 2021

Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman headed for a long spell in the US diplomatic freezer

Originally published in The Australian.

Rodger Shanahan
Rodger Shanahan

The Biden administration has wasted little time in trying to put Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia on a more even keel after the imbalance of the Trump years.

The close relationship between Washington and the Saudi royal family has normally shielded it from too much scrutiny, however, under the Trump administration the relationship became unbalanced.

But with the public release of the Director of National Intelligence’s report into the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and its assessment that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi, things have changed.

The Biden administration had already signalled that it sought to ‘re-evaluate’ its relationship with Riyadh, and the symbolism of the official calls from the new administration would not have been lost on Riyadh. President Joe Biden’s call to King Salman came long after calls to a swath of world leaders, including the prime minister of Iraq. Not only was it meant to signal that Washington viewed the Middle East as a lower priority than many of its predecessors, it also showed that Biden didn’t view Riyadh in quite the same way as Donald Trump had. The fact that the crown prince received a call from his opposite in the administration, the Defence Secretary, was further indication if needed, that the White House also viewed Mohammed in a different light.

But the release of the report is a much more pointed indication of Biden’s view of Saudi Arabia than the timing and allocation of ­telephone calls. Coming only a few weeks into the life of the new administration, it raised questions as to why their predecessors had refused to do so.

The fact that the DNI assessment mirrored the conclusion arrived at by Agnes Callamard, a UN special rapporteur raised further ­questions as to the nature of the previous administration’s ­relation­ship with the Saudis.

The problem now for Washington is what to do about the crown prince. The secretary of state has already announced visa restrictions on 76 Saudis connected to the death of Khashoggi, or involved in threats to other Saudi dissidents. There will be increasing strident calls from sections of the public and within congress for some form of unilateral sanction against the Crown Prince as a consequence of the report’s assessment. The Secretary of State, however, has already said that the administration doesn’t want a rupture in the bilateral relationship because of Saudi Arabia’s importance, and sanctioning the sitting crown prince has the potential to do just that.

As long as Mohammed is the crown prince, it is feasible, however, to keep him in the diplomatic freezer. But the king is elderly and frail and there is every chance that Mohammed will become king in the near future, at which point it will become increasingly difficult to keep him at arm’s length.

Saudi Arabia is a key regional partner, a G20 member and two-way trade between the countries is worth more than US$55bn ($71bn) annually. These are all significant issues that Washington must take into consideration in the way it approaches the issue.

The age of the crown prince means that he could be on the throne for half a century, and his ambition and ruthlessness has meant that he has been particularly focused on sidelining or emasculating any potential rivals for power among the extended royal family. The key portfolios are run by his loyalists. But his penchant for centralising power means that responsibility for errors also rests solely with him.

Ideally, Washington would like to see the Saudis decide themselves that the crown prince is too disliked within the international community and initiate a reshuffle in the line of succession. And although the crown prince has always been alert to that possibility and made its likelihood remote, the Saudi royal family have proven to be pragmatists when it comes to their internal dealings.

There is a significant possibility that a Democrat will occupy the Oval Office for the next 12 years, and it is not entirely unthinkable that the Saudis themselves may decide that a decade of being sidelined is not in their or their nation’s interest and a group may feel sufficiently emboldened to make a grab for power.

But for all the promise of a re-evaluation of their bilateral relationship, it is more likely that Mohammed bin Salman will become the king and the current and future administrations will devise ways of trying to maintain close relations with Saudi Arabia while trying not to maintain close relations with its ruler.

Rodger Shanahan is a Lowy Institute research fellow