Almost seventy-six years after the meeting of February 14, 1945, on the cruiser USS Quincy, between King Ibn Saud and President Franklin Roosevelt, is the sign of a change in the US-Saudi relationship. The US government on Monday, January 25, suspended for one month its sanctions on transactions with Houthi rebels in Yemen, time to reconsider their classification as a group “Terrorist”.
This first gesture could be followed by the end of American support for the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, since 2015 supporting forces loyal to the government against the Houthis, supported by Iran.
→ ANALYSIS. United States: diplomatic pressure from Mike Pompeo
The former head of American diplomacy Mike Pompeo had announced, in the last days of Donald Trump’s mandate, the inclusion of the Houthis on the blacklist of “terrorist” organizations. The UN and several other international organizations denounced this measure which risked blocking the delivery of aid to areas under rebel control.
Close relations with the Trump administration
Another expected initiative is the declassification of a CIA report, written six weeks after the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, which concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS) was directly responsible. At her confirmation hearing last week before the Senate, new intelligence director Avril Haines said that was the new administration’s intention.
Since the assassination of the Saudi journalist, Donald Trump and his administration have done everything to protect MBS and prevent him from having to answer for his alleged crime. The outgoing president has made Saudi Arabia the centerpiece of his strategy in the Middle East, anxious to spare American arms sales to the world’s largest oil exporter and to promote an anti-Iranian axis with the Gulf countries and Israel.
For its part, Riyadh shared the Republican administration’s deep animosity towards Iran and supported its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement. Since his appointment as crown prince in 2017, Mohammed Ben Salman has, moreover, maintained a close relationship with Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
A “sword of Damocles” on MBS
The publication of the CIA document will be one of the tests of Joe Biden’s willingness to rebalance relations between Riyadh and Washington. “With Joe Biden in the White House and a Congress with a Democratic majority, MBS no longer benefits from the comprehensive insurance given by Donald Trump. The possible declassification of the CIA report on the murder of Jamal Kashoggi constitutes a sword of Damocles upon him, analysis David Rigoulet-Roze, associate researcher at the French Institute of Strategic Analysis (Ifas) and at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris). The Democratic administration could use it as a means of pressure to ensure a certain number of expectations prevail, in particular in the field of human rights and the search for a way out of the crisis in Yemen. “
The Saudi crown prince himself has anticipated the change in US posture with a series of initiatives supposed to address the grievances expressed by Washington for a long time. In December, Riyadh, along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, ended the economic blockade of Qatar, another United States ally that houses a major US military base. Another pledge of appeasement, the Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, sentenced at the end of December to five years and eight months in prison, could be released soon.
No questioning of the partnership
“ The “reset” desired by the Biden administration on human rights and the war in Yemen will generate tensions but will not call into question the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, underlines Denis Bauchard, adviser for the Middle East at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri). The United States’ anchoring in the Middle East with Israel and Saudi Arabia will be maintained and normalization between Israel and the Arab countries encouraged. “
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There remains the question of Iranian nuclear power. The ambition displayed by Joe Biden to reconcile re-engagement with Iran, an “unwavering link” with Israel and bringing MBS to heel, risks running up against the hard constraints of realpolitik.