It will not be business as usual in Saudi Arabia’s relations with the US under the Biden administration. The latest suspension of the weapons deal with the Arab nation is the first sign of this changing equation.
The sales have been paused as part of a review of multibillion-dollar arms agreements made under the Trump administration. New Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has defined the review as “to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives, and advances our foreign policy”.
Even though the pause and the review are nothing unusual and common for new administrations, Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, the disastrous war in Yemen, and arbitrary detentions are going to be noted as part of the review. President Biden has signaled that the US may no longer support the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
A former senior Obama administration official familiar with Biden’s thinking told CNBC that the resetting of ties means the relationship is going to go back to strategic and values-based, which wasn’t done in four years. Experts have described the relationship with the kingdom under Trump as “permissive”.
Donald Trump has been criticized for not penalizing Riyadh for its role in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. However, the former official has ensured that things are going to be different now and Saudis will have to pay a price.
Stressing the US President’s influence, it has also been underlined that the same impact can be used for democracy, which Trump didn’t do while keeping a focus on defense deals.
Since the current defense deal included lethal drones and the flagship F-35 joint strike fighter jet, which were off the table for Middle East allies before the Abraham Accord, there is also a security concern for the US. According to the experts, the pause has a crucial security angle.
The US doesn’t want its most advanced fighter in the world, and the technologies associated with it, to be leaking to Beijing or Moscow, the analysts have pointed out. Then again Saudi Arabia is America’s closest security partner in the Arab world and a major customer for US arms sales.
BBC has quoted a Royal Court insider as saying, “the Biden administration will shine a much more powerful light on human rights than previously. It’s on the agenda now and it will require actions, not words.”