Biden’s policy shift means Saudi Arabia will have to adapt to regain favour with Washington


On Thursday, February 4, Joe Biden announced the US State Department’s new foreign policy on Saudi Arabia. The announcement confirmed a long-awaited shift in US foreign policy which will see an end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and a new effort to find a peace agreement to end the conflict. Prioritising human rights for future relations with the Saudis, Biden’s policy likely provides significant leverage to draw the Saudis out of Yemen as they seek to ameliorate their relations with the new administration. 

Shifting Sands

Biden made clear in his speech that Saudi Arabia will no longer be the recipient of unreserved American support. Backing for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen was terminated both militarily through the suspension of arms sales and diplomatically through the launching of a new peace initiative with Yemen. The President also promised to conduct future engagement with the Saudis along more critical lines by emphasising human rights as an important facet of US concerns in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. This reflects a complete reversal from Donald Trump’s approach of unequivocal backing to Saudi Arabia and suggests that the carte blanche the latter once enjoyed in its foreign and domestic affairs is no longer. This will mainly impact two areas: Yemen and human rights.

On Yemen, Biden cited the “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe” in the country as his main motive for wanting to bring an end to the civil war, which has killed over 100,000 and displaced 8 million Yemenis. On human rights, a call between Anthony Blinken and his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan “elevat[ed] human rights” as a “key priorit[y] of the new administration,” which will likely translate to greater pressure than the previous administration for domestic reform in the Gulf Kingdom. The long-expected policy announcement will not surprise Saudi Arabia, but it will pressure them into making their own domestic and foreign policy changes in order to improve their relations with the Biden administration.


In terms of military policy, all US ”relevant” arms sales contracts to the Saudis have been cancelled, which includes any materiel supporting Saudi combat operations in Yemen, though the US will continue to supply Saudi Arabia with defence equipment against Houthi missile and UAV attacks. Although Congress previously voted to end US military assistance to the Saudi campaign, Trump used his presidential veto to prevent the decision becoming policy. The translation of that vote into reality now puts into doubt the $498 million deal inked by Trump to sell up to 7,500 smart bombs to the Kingdom. From a diplomatic perspective, the policy shift includes a fresh US initiative to bring the Yemen civil war to a close. A day after Biden’s speech, the State Department confirmed its intention to revoke Trump’s designation of the Houthi movement as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Biden also appointed veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking as a new US special envoy for Yemen to initiate fresh peace talks to end the conflict. Those decisions will likely place sufficient pressure on the Saudis to end or at least significantly de-escalate the Yemen war by facilitating engagement between the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UN with a primary goal of seeking a ceasefire agreement. 

Human Rights 

On human rights, the Biden administration had previously announced its plans to declassify its intelligence on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This is likely to embarrass the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by incriminating him as partially responsible for the murder and dampen his credibility as a US partner. In a broader sense, though no specifics have been mentioned, the Biden administration is also to likely take a firmer line on human rights offences within the Kingdom including women’s rights, detention of political dissidents  and the executions of Shia clerics. How far the Saudis go in this respect remains to be seen, although two recent reprieves in the Saudi justice system are perhaps telling. Firstly, three young men, including Ali al-Nimr, the son of executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who were sentenced to death as minors for their anti-government activities, had their sentences commuted to 10 years in prison. Secondly, two political activists – Salah al-Haider and Bader al-Ibrahim – were released from prison earlier this week. The timing of the decisions suggests that Saudi Arabia is already taking steps to repair its standing with Washington and its reputation as a tainted ally.  If those moves are anything to go by, a laxer stance by Riyadh on penalties for political activism is more likely in the foreseeable future. 

The Future Course of US-Saudi Relations

The combined pressure of the US policy shift and subsequent decisions are evidence that Saudi Arabia can no longer act with the impunity it did under Trump. The new policy gains the US a huge amount of leverage over Saudi Arabia and incurs a considerable amount of reputational damage on the Kingdom. The Biden administration hopes that this new leverage will drive the Saudis to seek to redeem their reputation by implementing domestic reforms and withdrawing from Yemen. By taking a more critical approach towards Saudi Arabia, Biden’s policy will partially disembroil Saudi Arabia from Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran, in which the Saudis were seen purely through the lens of strategically pressuring Iran. This will treat Saudi Arabia with a more bilateral view with regards to their activities, which the Saudis might benefit from.

Though the intimacy of the US-Saudi relationship may be impacted in the short-term, Biden’s administration is still operating on the premise that the Saudis are the most important US strategic allies in the region. In his speech he cited the US aim of continuing to “help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty…and its people.” The Blinken-Faisal call meanwhile included a discussion on countering common threats and advancing regional security concerns of mutual interest. Because of this, there are sufficient mutual interests to keep Saudi Arabia a strong US ally in the medium to long-term, despite the policy shift. This is not least because so much of Saudi’s standing is the result of US backing, which the Saudis will seek to regain. 

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