Saudi reactions to Biden’s inauguration

Already missing Trump but cautiously welcoming the new administration

The inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States was featured on the front pages of all Saudi newspapers Thursday, with commentary ranging from sadness over Trump’s departure to cautiously welcoming the new administration and hoping that it would maintain the close ties forged in recent years. Here is a selection of linked articles and translated passages from the Saudi press in recent days:

Abdulrahman al-Rashed, former editor of Asharq al-Awsat who generally reflects the official mood in Riyadh, had a warm farewell message for Trump on Twitter. He described him as a “brave and honourable man who stood like a mountain against Iran, extremist groups in the region, and other haters inside the United States”. We should be grateful to Trump and “we will long remember him as the man who sought to change our region for the better”, he added.

In his latest column published Thursday, al-Rashed said Trump’s impact would long outlast him but quickly pivoted to the forthcoming Biden era:

It is not possible to be certain about the next steps, but the fear may be exaggerated, as well as considering Biden an extension of Obama’s policy. Indeed, many of the faces nominated have worked in the Obama administration. But their presence does not mean the policy would be identical. Obama failed during his presidency in marketing his policy, particularly forcing Gulf states and Israel to deal with Iran. Then Trump came and besieged Iran’s arms, destroying its financial and economic capabilities. Thus, going back to the same point where Obama left off is nearly impossible, and there are new realities in the past four years: the Russians entering the conflict in Syria, the Iranian incursion into Iraq against American interests, Iran’s threat to oil shipping routes, the Israeli-Gulf alliance against Iran, as well as Tehran’s continuing sabotage activities in Yemen and Lebanon. 

Statements by President Biden and his men and women during their presence in the opposition, and then on the campaign trail, have caused concern but in the past few days they offer reasons for optimism. The nominated Secretary of Defense endorsed and praised the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a position that must have come as a shock to the Iranians. Likewise, the nominated Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has blamed the Houthis and held them responsible for what is happening in Yemen. We should not forget that he was the Deputy Secretary when the war broke out after the Houthis seized power, and he said at the time in 2015: “What Saudi Arabia and its allies have done is a matter of great importance. Saudi Arabia has sent a strong message to the Houthis and their allies, that they cannot overrun Yemen by force, and that they have no other choice but to return to the political transition process that they obstructed”. The important new development is that he pledged the day before yesterday at Congress to include the Gulf states and Israel in any nuclear negotiations with Iran, and this is a completely different position from the policy of Obama who was keen to exclude them and manage them in secret.

The columnist is obviously choosing to focus on the positives from Blinken’s confirmation hearing where he also said the Biden administration would “immediately” review the designation of Houthis as a terrorist group and end support to the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. “The Houthis bear significant responsibility for what's happened in Yemen, but the way the campaign has been conducted has also contributed significantly to that situation. And so our support should end”, he said. Other potentially bad news for Saudi Arabia came from Avril Haines, the new Director of National Intelligence, who told Congress in her confirmation hearing that the Biden administration will declassify an intelligence report into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Not many people seem to remember this now, but one of the early sources of tension between Khashoggi and Saudi authorities came in the aftermath of the last US election after he participated in a discussion panel hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in November 2016. At a time when Saudi officials appeared keen to court the surprise winner of that election and cultivate deep ties with his administration, Khashoggi said Saudi Arabia should be worried about Trump’s contradictory comments and urged the kingdom to create an alliance of Sunni countries to serve as a bulwark against a potentially anti-Sunni president.

It is interesting to observe that some of the commentary in local newspapers this week reveal similar sentiments. Okaz columnist Khalid al-Sulaiman wrote that he was sad that Hillary Clinton lost the election because Trump has shown hostility to Saudi Arabia during the campaign. He praised Trump’s performance as president and said his only mistake was underplaying the coronavirus:

This time, I’m sad that Trump lost just as I was sad over his victory four years ago. I am concerned that the Biden administration would be a copy of the Obama administration that pursued a Middle East policy that did not serve the interests of my country, deepened the region’s crises and allowed Iran to act freely and pursue a hostile policy that caused a lot of damage in the region!

But the fact is also that the kingdom has faced the Obama period firmly and succeeded in overcoming it, and it will do the same with any president of America. In the end, it will defend its interests and impose the realism of the same interests on the policy of any US administration towards Saudi Arabia, an actor who cannot be avoided in many international issues such as energy, security, and the stability of the region!

The majority of op-eds written after the election strived to emphasise that bilateral ties would not see changes because some of the individuals involved are no longer in office, arguing that relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States are built on solid common interests. Jameel al-Theyabi, editor-in-chief of Okaz, wrote that opposing Iran, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist groups is something shared not just by the kingdom and the US but also their allies around the world. He added:

There is no doubt that the Trump era is far better than the Obama era that was described as a failed one for the region, which is what Biden must avoid. Of course, there had been some twists and turns in the relations between Washington and Riyadh, and the bilateral ties were not tensions-free during some periods. But the solidity of the relationship always overcomes any divergence of views because the common interests are not temporary, but rather existential and vital for both the countries.

There is no doubt that opponents, even before the allies, know the willpower of the Saudi decision-making and the independence of Saudi policy, which is becoming more important and powerful as Riyadh shoulders its vital roles in leading the Arab and Islamic worlds, as well as its presence in the G20, which is the bloc of the world’s largest economies. The kingdom is paying close attention to addressing the problems of the global economy, especially the stability of the international oil markets that represent the lifeline and backbone for all countries of the world. So the history and strategy of the Saudi-American relationship will preserve common interests and crystalise new visions to solve the region’s problems.

It is hard to imagine that Biden would follow Trump’s steps in making Saudi Arabia the destination of his first foreign trip as president, but a columnist for the Dammam-based al-Yaum daily is confident about a Biden visit in the near future. Ahmad Awadh wrote:

All American presidents know that Saudi Arabia has the ability to control the rhythm of the global energy market, and the ability to move public opinion in the Islamic world. Its economic and religious power has made them hold onto it as an ally that cannot be replaced. I am not speculating here. I am talking about a reality in which we live. Saudi Arabia is a country that has influential factors that make the possiblity of any country to compromise its relationship with it a naïve talk. Soon everyone will see President Biden in al-Ula or in Riyadh, to assure the world that the partnership between the two countries, which is more than 80 years old, will continue and will grow stronger and more resilient.

Unsigned editorials at al-Riyadh tried to point out that the huge gap in vision and policies by Trump and Biden will make the next period uncertain. The world must wait until the new president addresses pressing domestic issues before turning to the international stage. The same take was offered by Faisal Abbas, the editor-in-chief of English-language daily Arab News:

We, US allies in the Middle East, a region that has always been directly affected by US elections, are obviously looking forward to working with the new administration on resolving regional issues. However, the reality is that President Biden, perhaps more than many of his predecessors, has an overwhelmingly long list of domestic issues that demand his immediate attention. The coronavirus has infected nearly 25 million Americans and taken the lives of more than 400,000. The economy is suffering and there is massive unemployment and unprecedented political and social division.

Recent reports by international media outlets have pointed to recent steps taken by Saudi Arabia as overtures to decrease potential friction with a new American administration seen as far less friendly than its predecessors to the kingdom. These steps include progress on some human rights issues like reducing the number of executions and removing content deemed hateful to non-Muslims from textbooks used in local schools. Saudi officials insist that these moves are part of the domestic reform agenda and not drive by foreign policy considerations.

Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told Al Arabiya Thursday that relations between the two countries are “institutional” and interests do not change from one administration to another. “In the same way that we have been keen to build good relations with the administration of President Trump, we will work to build an excellent relationship with the administration of President Biden”, he said.


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