After Trump’s Embrace, Saudis Brace for a Chillier Tone From Biden


BEIRUT, Lebanon — For the last four years, President Trump’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia meant that there was seemingly nothing its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, could do to earn a rebuke from the White House.

Saudi bombs killed civilians in Yemen, Saudi activists went to jail, and Saudi agents dismembered the dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. None of it shook Mr. Trump’s commitment to the kingdom as a reliable partner against Iran and an important purchaser of American weapons.

Now Saudi Arabia is bracing for a new American leader who has vowed to end support for the Yemen war, penalize human rights violations and treat Saudi Arabia like “the pariah that they are.”

“It is past time to restore a sense of balance, perspective and fidelity to our values in our relationships in the Middle East,” President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. told the Council on Foreign Relations last year when asked about Saudi Arabia. “We will make clear that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.”

The difference in tone is stark, and Prince Mohammed may have to accept that unless he changes his ways he is unlikely to be as welcome at the White House as he was under Mr. Trump. Experts said they did not expect a break with the kingdom, but pressure from a Biden administration could push Riyadh to temper its more reckless behavior.

“There are a lot of reasons for this relationship to continue — it has a lot of value for both sides — but it simply cannot continue in the way it has for the last four years,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “There have been a series of violations of the rules between friendly governments, a violation of norms.”

Saudi officials have played down the exceptional ties between Mr. Trump and the kingdom, instead emphasizing the nearly eight decades of cooperation between countries.

“Our relationship is far deeper than just one Saudi leader or one American president,” Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, said in a video address to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations on Wednesday.

Analysts said Mr. Trump’s support had enabled Prince Mohammed’s riskier moves, and that a new tone from the White House could have the opposite effect.

“I think the support from Washington emboldened him and took away many of the guardrails that ought to have been there,” said Rob Malley, the president of the International Crisis Group. “Biden has been very clear about Yemen, Iran and human rights. Those are three areas where you are likely to see a shift from the present.”

Officials on Mr. Biden’s transition team declined to comment, not wanting to appear to conduct foreign policy while another president was still in charge.

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