Alwaght– White House Spokeswoman Jen Psaki on February 16 said President Joe Biden plans to put the US relations with Saudi Arabia in a new canal and deal only with Saudi King Salman rather than his son and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The move represents a return to ‘counterpart to counterpart’ diplomacy, the Psaki further said, adding that his rightful counterpart is the king and they will talk in an appropriate time.
The comments drew considerable reflections on the world media and also among the political experts. Now the question is that where will the American-Saudi relations go and how will the future of the de facto leader bin Salman be? What would be the reactions by Prince Mohammed to the new president’s decision?
Two scenarios for bin Salman’s political future
Following the recent remarks of the White House spokeswoman, the political future of the crown prince has been discussed and analyzed by political observers. Two scenarios are likely here:
The first scenario is that in the next four years, he will not be able to complete his ascension to the throne while his father is alive. The basis of this scenario is that during the presidency of Donald Trump, the US State Department tried to finalize the necessary ground for the powerful prince to ascend the throne during his father’s life so that there would be no more threat to his reign. The dominant view of political observers is that bin Salman and former US secretary of State Mike Pompeo, confident of Donald Trump’s victory in the November 3 election, postponed the consolidation of the Crown Prince’s power until 2020, but Biden’s victory changed the whole equations. According to this scenario, given the US opposition to the position and actions of bin Salman under Biden, there is no longer the necessary ground for him to sit on the throne during the lifetime of King Salman.
Contrary to this scenario, another possibility is that bin Salman, in cooperation with his home and foreign allies, will attempt to transfer power in the coming months with his father’s permission. The basis of this scenario is that the crown prince is now more uncertain about sitting on the throne than ever before, and there is no longer a big supporter like Donald Trump in the White House who will support him under any circumstances. As a result, bin Salman will try to persuade his father to step down in his favor in the short term by putting pressure on him.
This scenario is somewhat plausible, even with US and European opposition, and will probably be on bin Salman’s agenda from now on. In fact, the US government’s new stance on him can be seen as a major turning point in the life of the young and naïve Saudi heir to the throne.
Biden decision’s consequences
Another issue regarding Biden’s decision to deal only with the king is the potential impacts such a decision will leave on Washington relations with Riyadh in the next four years. Officials in the new US administration have repeatedly stated that Washington will review its relations with Riyadh unless Saudi Arabia takes serious action on human rights issues, including the release of political prisoners and the lifting of the ban on women’s rights activists. Here are the three most important effects:
Bin Salman opponents’ power boost
The first effect or reflection of the Biden government’s approach to bin Salman can be seen in the strengthening of opposition, mainly the crown prince’s opponents, at home and abroad. In the current situation, bin Salman is facing three main opponents. The first and perhaps the most important one is his uncle Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, and his cousin Muhammed bin Nayef who were practically ousted from power in the 2017 pseudo-coup. A large part of the royals still recognize bin Nayef as the rightful crown prince. So, chances are that in the new period, Biden administration takes the path of supporting these two princes in a bid to put strains on bin Salman.
Muslim Brotherhood and Sahwa movement (Awakening), led by Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, are the second biggest opposition to bin Salman inside the country. Indeed, the crown prince follows their activities with extreme sensitivity. He once sought execution of al-Ouda, but abandoned under foreign pressures. In the new period, Biden government will possibly back these groups relatively and secretly.
The third enemy to bin Salman is National Assembly Party. The party, a foreign-based opposition to bin Salman, started its activities last year with a focus on freedom of expression and promotion of democracy in the absolutely-ruled Arab kingdom. It seems that in Biden administration, the party will find people to back its activism and postures.
Bin Salman’s efforts to move closer to Russia and China
In the face of the relatively strong US stance against bin Salman, in addition to the crown prince’s attempt to consolidate the monarchy during his father’s lifetime, which is a possible scenario, he is likely to take a growing proximity to China and Russia, and tangible moves have already been taken since Biden came to power. Although during Trump presidency, the Saudis raised with Moscow purchase of Russian arms, this approach can materialize in Biden period.
In the most important act, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan went to Moscow on January 14, 2021 to hold talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Although the main focus was buying the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine and to address the situation in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon and the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council countries, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the reality is that the purpose of bin Salman was to issue warning to Biden using this Moscow trip.
Many analysts believe that Bin Farhan’s trip to Moscow on the eve of Trump’s departure from the White House reflects Riyadh’s concern about the US without Trump, or presidency of Biden who on the anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi, the slain Saudi opposition writer, took apparently anti-Saudi and anti-bin Salman positions. At the same time, Russian media reported that Riyadh intends to purchase the S-400 missile defense system and the Su-35 fighter jet from Russia. Also, according to bin Farhan, trade between the two countries has now reached $1.4 billion and the two sides are working to increase it to $2.5 billion.
It seems that Saudi Arabia, after Washington’s arms delivery suspension, has decided, like Turkey, it should buy weapons from Russia, showing that bin Salman is resolved to shift to the East if Biden continue his unfriendly approach.
Prince Mohammed’s motivation to speed up normalization with Tel Aviv increases
Another consequence of the Biden government’s policy towards bin Salman could be acceleration of the crown prince’s attempt to speed up the normalization of relations with the Israeli regime. In fact, over the past year, bin Salman played an irreplaceable role behind the normalization of Arab countries’ relations with Tel Aviv, but so far he has not taken a practical step in this field for his own country. But in the new situation, it seems that he, in order to put pressure on the Biden government and reduce the attacks on him in the US, will adopt a strategy of closeness and implementation of thaw with the Israelis. This can provide him a shield from Zionist lobbies in the US against Biden pressures and somehow give him breathing room.