Joe Biden described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state as a candidate for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the murder of civilians in air strikes in Yemen.
“They murder innocent people and must be held accountable,” he said said in November 2019. “In the current government in Saudi Arabia, there is very little social salvation value.”
Now the White House is giving the diplomatic cold shoulder to the man who heads this government: Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince better known to the world as MBS.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that when Biden makes his first official call to Saudi Arabia as president, it will be 85-year-old King Salman – rather than his 35-year-old son – who heads state parliament day .
“We made it clear from the start that we will recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” she said.
That doesn’t mean the United States is severing ties with the Kingdom, which official figures say remains a key nation in the Middle East. The Crown Prince himself isn’t completely frozen either: he’s officially Saudi Arabia’s Secretary of Defense and received a call from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
But Psaki’s words were a signal that Crown Prince Mohammed was being kept at a distance by the White House. Gone is the president’s extensive access he enjoyed under former President Donald Trump when he was housed in the Oval Office and treated like a head of state.
The move may come as no surprise as Biden has accused the Crown Prince of personally ordering Khashoggi’s murder – an assessment shared by the CIA but strongly denied by Saudi Arabia.
However, it has sparked a heated debate: is it sustainable for the US to maintain ties with the Saudi government while getting the de facto leader of the kingdom out of the way?
Download the NBC News App for breaking news and politics
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who served in the Middle East and is now a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, says yes.
“I can’t speak for the government, but I think it would be wise to send the message to Saudi Arabia that the White House will not negotiate with MBS because of its track record of ruthless violence against civilians,” he told NBC News.
Crown Prince Mohammed has been widely criticized for overseeing massive crackdown on dissent in the country and continuing the war in neighboring Yemen, which is now the scene of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Riedel argued that the Crown Prince’s hold on power in Saudi Arabia is not as firm as it seems, and that his diminished standing in the White House might encourage the palace’s rivals to oust him as heir to the throne. “The endangerment of the Kingdom’s alliance with the United States is not seen as an advantage.”
Ali Shihabi, a commentator close to the Saudi government, said there was no chance the crown prince would be evicted and the White House had no choice but to contact him.
“There’s a big element of theater that the grassroots like because they had the big talk during the campaign. But Biden knows as well as everyone around him that MBS is the CEO of the country,” he said. “Ultimately he makes all the decisions – the king has given him this power – and they must take care of him. “
Reality could end somewhere in the middle. While Biden can avoid calling the Crown Prince from the White House, the Saudi king usually represents his father at international summits like the G-20, which could force the president to interact with him.
King Salman’s age and fragile health – he spent 10 days in the hospital during the summer with an inflamed gallbladder – also mean that the White House’s justification for avoiding the Crown Prince on the basis of official protocol may not last. The crown prince could soon be the king and thus Biden’s formal counterpart.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on this story. ON Explanation The Saudi government confirmed the call between the Crown Prince and Austin on Friday, but made no mention of the White House announcement.
Becca Wasser, a defense fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the White House, disassociated from the crown prince, was part of an “overdue” reset of US-Saudi Arabia relations, which included Biden’s decision to support Washington’s support -Arabs to end war in Yemen.
“Such steps will not be welcome in Riyadh and, as with any reset, the pain will increase,” she said. “But the end result is a re-calibrated relationship that is more in line with US interests and values and ends the blank check that the Trump administration is providing the Saudis.”