Biden and MBS Frenemies as Biden Halts Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

  • + Biden has temporarily suspended US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
  • + Biden’s decision will have implications on the US-Saudi relationship. 
  • + After years of Yemeni suffering at the hands of Saudi Arabia, Biden’s halting of arms is an attempt to bring more peaceful relations to the Middle East. 
MBS Biden
Biden’s new foreign policy set to increase tensions with MBS 

Why is Biden MBS’ frenemy? 

Answer: Despite Biden and MBS having inherent geo-political ties, disagreements over arms sales and Iran foreshadows a complex relationship for the two leaders.

The Trump administration bolstered the alliance with Mohammad bin Salman despite growing disputes surrounding Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. With Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner sporting a cosy relationship with the Saudi leader, then-president Donald Trump defended the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia, arguing that a halt would hurt the US-Saudi relationship. 

However, a newly inaugurated Biden is not fearful of harming the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia amidst growing warnings that the Gulf Kingdom is using US-built weapons to aggravate the conflict in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has recieved unwavering support from the US despite being responsible for 60% of deaths in the Yemen war and MBS’ alleged ordering of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. However, the strong relationship is likely to be significantly weakened following Biden’s review of the arms deal with the Kingdom. 

Riyadh has historic ties to Washington: the US is known to supply arms to Saudi Arabia and relies on them as a major oil exporter, but the Yemeni humanitarian crisis has called morals into question within the US-Saudi relationship. A review of the American-Saudi alliance was brewing even before Biden took office, with Democrat eyebrows being raised at Kushner’s lack of foreign policy experience and his relationship with MBS existing outside of diplomatic channels. Biden’s decision to halt arms sales will bring about an end to Saudi Arabia’s assumption that it has near-unconditional support from the US. 

In discussions over the matter, Biden has chosen to converse only with MBS’ father, King Salman rather than the de-facto leader of Saudi Arabia himself, which can only further a complex relationship between the two moving forward. 

What does Biden want? 

Answer: Carrying America into a post-Trump era, he is seen to be making radical changes to the agenda

Just days following his inauguration, Biden was seen making changes to the agenda in order to undo some of Trump’s most outrageous policies. Halting the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia and UAE was one of them. With the world watching his election in an almost ruinous America, Biden is cautious to fulfil his role as America’s progressive hero, an attempt at characterising his administration as one that is in complete contrast to Trump’s, and even, in some ways, his democratic predecessor, Obama. 

Years prior to being elected, a then-presidential candidate Biden was vocal about his support for Senate democrats opposing Trump’s involvement in the Saudi-Yemen war. With an public approval rating of 54% as of February, Biden’s decision to freeze arms deals with Saudi Arabia is an attempt to fulfil the promises of his election manifesto and party allegiance. 

Biden’s early days of presidency have been met with calls from human rights organisations to end the US’ alliance with Saudi Arabia to finally put an end to the war in Yemen. With constant pressure applied to Biden to adopt a moral leadership, and he has further promised a restoration of the US refugee programme and announced an executive order to allow a number of 125,000 refugees to reside in the US in the administration’s first fiscal year; a number considerably higher than the number of refugees accepted in the last year of the Obama administration and, needless to say, exceptionally higher than that during the Trump era. 

Biden is otherwise concerned with Saudi Arabia’s domestic human rights record, including the detention of political prisoners for crimes such as advocating for women’s rights. After four long years of Trump’s conservative, protectionist governance, Biden’s drive can be attributed to a strong liberal ideology, and a sense of momentum that America has been longing for.  Biden’s decision to release a US intelligence report confirming MBS had ordered the killing of Khashoggi aims to put pressure on the Crown Prince, putting US oversight on his leadership and pushing him to improve the Kingdom’s human rights record. 

An overarching factor that is likely to result in a clashing of personalities between the two leaders is Biden’s commitment to lessening tensions with Iran. Although a lack of confidence in the Trump administration has ruined chances of rejoining the JCPoA nuclear accord with Iran, it seems Biden’s diplomatic efforts in scoring a new deal with Iran could rile up tensions with MBS

What does MBS want?

Answer: An involvement in Iran negotiations and continued US support beneficial to MBS moving forward into the Biden-era. 

Slow in congratulating Biden for his win in the election, MBS is undoubtedly in mourning of the US-Saudi relationship that the Trump administration offered. A special alliance with the leading global superpower shielded MBS against the multitude of accusations from international organisations regarding Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemeni conflict and the detention of women activists. Needless to say, for MBS to continue to get away with such unrivalled crimes against humanity, a strong US-Saudi relationship is highly desired by MBS, driving him in future discussions with Biden. 

The civil war in Yemen has provided a backdrop fitting for MBS struggle for Middle Eastern domination. Currently, Yemen is witnessing the Houthi rebel group maintaining control of large regions, which led ex-president Hadi to flee in exile. MBS’ intervention in Yemen promised to restore the power of his ally, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and push back the Iranian-backed Shia Houthis. The Biden administration is proposing a peaceful resolution to the conflict, offering the Hadi and Houthi forces with a third of the share of seats in the Sanaa-based government, but is likely to be met with extreme opposition from the Saudi leader and the Houthi extremists. 

What is the underlying desire for MBS? And how will the US withdrawal of arms impact him? Though his end-goal is ambiguous, it is likely to be attributed to both defending Saudi security and preventing Iranian domination in the region. With the end of the war looking bleak for MBS, the already existing arsenal of weapons may mean the US’ freezing of arms may not have devastating effects to his leadership but achieving his geo-political goals may already be off the table. Though for differing reasons, the consensus in Saudi opinion is that internal political and economic reform is more important than any foreign policy issue. Thus, the leader is likely to be met with domestic problems simultaneous to his escalating struggle in Yemen. 

What is MBS doing?

Answer: To distract observers from accusations surrounding human rights, MBS is wrestling to uphold his power in the region. 

Undeniably, in the less Saudi-compassionate Biden-era, MBS is required to make some concessions in order to receive priority privileges from the United States in the Iran nuclear deal. In transforming the domestic economy of Saudi Arabia post-COVID and recovering from the Khashoggi scandal, it is crucial for MBS to improve the country’s image in the international sphere to ensure partners and global engagement moving forward. By releasing a US intelligence report confirming MBS had ordered the death of Khashoggi, Biden sent a clear message that he expects the Kingdom to considerably improve its human rights record, while putting pressure on MBS’ dominant domestic and regional leadership. 

MBS has returned to the geo-political sphere with new diplomatic and economic tactics to prove to the US that they are a worthy ally. In January 2021, the leader was seen unveiling investment plans worth $6 trillion in a virtual speech at the World Economic Forum. As the sixth most powerful foreign lobby in the US, Saudi Arabia could have relatively significant influence on US domestic affairs. 

The Iran nuclear deal is to be one of the most contended areas of the relationship between Biden and MBS. With a freezing of arms deals, opening up discussion surrounding Iran’s nuclear armament, MBS who has historically been deemed a powerful figure in the Gulf region, could be under threat. In demanding an involvement in US discussions to limit Iran’s ballistic missile programmes, what we see is a desperate attempt from MBS to grapple onto any lasting power that the Biden administration may allow him to have in US-Middle Eastern negotiations. 

MBS is pushing for partnership with the Biden administration for a new nuclear pact, attempting to build an alliance with UAE, the US and Israel in order to further isolate his rival, Iran.  

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: We can expect the UK to follow in Biden’s footsteps, with other leaders in the Gulf region stepping up 

Biden’s decision is playing into the hands of Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu who was always opposed to Trump’s Saudi arms deal in order to uphold Israel’s military edge. Thus, a straining  of US-Saudi ties could mean we see a furthering of the mutually gaining relationship between the US and Israel in the geo-political sphere, and consequential Israeli partnerships in the Middle East to rival Iran. However, the delay of Biden’s out-reach to the Israeli leader in the early days of his leadership offers an interpretation that Biden could be furthering his digression from the typical American president, particularly involving any kind of allyship in the Middle East. 

The Biden administration has sent a ripple of fear throughout the Gulf region, with many other leaders stepping up as a moderate force. The United Arab Emirates puts aside previous rifts with Qatar to establish bipartisan ties with Israel to build a defence against Iran.

With regard to global security, following Biden’s decision to freeze the selling of arms to MBS and escalating pressure from international organisations being applied, we could expect the UK to follow suit. The coalition freezing an arms deal with Saudi Arabia could result, finally, in a step in the right direction for changing the state of Yemen and for the Kingdom to review their dealing with domestic dissent. Alternatively, considering MBS’ stark conservatism that echoes the country’s beliefs as a whole, Biden’s bids to oblige MBS to commit to human rights regulations proves extremely ambitious.

Elle Osborn

R&A Alumna