Biden on collision course with Saudi Arabia that could upset Trump's alliance against Iran

Josie Ensor
·4-min read
Joe Biden speaks on his administration on his first days in office
Joe Biden speaks on his administration on his first days in office

The Biden administration has already set itself on a collision course with Saudi Arabia after its director of National Intelligence vowed to declassify a report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The push to release the intelligence community’s assessment of the murder of the dissident journalist, which is believed to implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has the potential to trigger a major fallout with the kingdom.

Avril Haines, who was confirmed in her new role on Thursday, told Congress “we will follow the law” regarding the report, referring to the Trump administration’s refusal to release the full version for US House representatives.

The CIA is said to have concluded with a high degree of confidence that Prince Mohammed, or MBS - a close ally of the previous government - ordered the Washington Post columnist’s assassination at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. However, its contents have not been made public.

MBS, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, has denied he ordered the murder and the Trump administration publicly stood by him despite international condemnation.

Khashoggi speaks during a press conference 
Khashoggi speaks during a press conference

“I hope they do what they say,” Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who has been calling on President Joe Biden to release the report, said in a short comment to The Sunday Telegraph.

Ms Haines’ statement is the first signal of how the Biden administration intends to potentially reset relations with the oil-rich kingdom.

Mr Biden is yet to lay out his position on one of America’s closest Middle East allies, but has previously called for Washington to drop support for Saudi’s war in Yemen and re-examine arms sales.

Mr Biden issued scathing attacks against the crown prince during his presidential campaign, saying Riyadh needed to be treated as “a pariah” and vowing to take away MBS’s “dangerous blank check.”

The release of the report does, however, risk backing the US into a corner, analysts said.

“It's going to put the Biden administration in a real bind,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), which was founded in the wake of Khashoggi’s death. “How do they continue to justify arms sales to Saudi Arabia after the report’s revelations? At the same time, there is obviously a realpolitik at play.”

While the administration wants to be seen to be holding Saudi to account, it is thought to also be eager to build on the Abraham Accords, negotiated by Donald Trump.

Saudi, viewed as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, is a white whale in the agreement, which aims to normalise Arab relations with Israel.

Any alienation of Saudi could upset the new alliance with Israel against Iran.

“(Secretary of State nominee Antony) Blinken has very clearly said that he supports the Abraham Accords,” said Ms Whitson. “That means that he would probably be willing to spend capital to bring Saudi to the table, which even Trump couldn’t manage.”

Alya Abutayah, a London-based Saudi human rights activist, also welcomed the news of the Haines report.

"We are as political and human rights activists are very optimistic about Biden’s management and a new America being born again," she said. "I hope he will be able to achieve justice for Khashoggi, and all those activists who are in prison."

Israel has been watching nervously as Biden officials discuss engagement with Iran and the possibility of rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal Mr Trump walked away from.

Dore Gold, a former director-general of Israel's foreign affairs ministry, told The Telegraph that Mr Biden would be making a "big mistake" if he sought to revive Barack Obama-era Middle East policies.

"America and its closest allies need to be extremely firm with Iran," said Mr Gold, a close confidant of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "What the last two years have shown is that American policy towards Iran provided the glue that bound the Israelis and the Arabs together.

"So my hope is that as long as Iran is threatening the region with nuclear weapons development and malign activity, America will stand strong against Iran."

Turkey and Qatar may seek to mend fences with Israel as this is the only path to a strong relationship with the United States, according to Amir Avivi, a regional security analyst and former brigadier-general in the Israel Defence Forces.

"It’s a whole new game in the Middle East and we will see for the first time Qatar and Turkey saying to themselves, maybe we should join in," said Mr Avivi, who now heads Habithonistim, a campaign group of former Israeli officers.

"There is an understanding now that if you want to get closer to the United States you need to be close to Israel."