Saudi king, not de facto leader MBS, will get first Biden call: W.House

·3-min read
A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on November 22, 2020, shows Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud delivering an address during the second session of the G20 summit, held virtually due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, in the capital Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia's king, not the younger de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will be the one getting a first phone call from US President Joe Biden, the White House said Tuesday.

Biden is using telephone diplomacy to underline the break with Donald Trump's Mideast policies.

Although Biden has reached out to US allies in every corner of the world, he has pointedly kept Israeli and Saudi leaders waiting by the phone.

Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that when Biden does finally reach out to the Saudis, it won't be to the crown prince, known as MBS, who had an especially close relationship with the Trump administration.

"We've made clear from the beginning that we're going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia," Psaki said, and "part of that is going back to engagement counterpart-to-counterpart."

"The president's counterpart is King Salman," she said.

Psaki once again made clear the Biden administration's lack of a rush in getting hold of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- another of Trump's closest foreign partners.

"Let me confirm for you that his first call with a leader in the region will be Prime Minister Netanyahu," she said. "I don't have an exact date for you but it is soon."

Psaki said any personal chill did not reflect a shift in US commitment to the "important strategic security relationship" with Israel and the "critical self-defense needs" of Saudi Arabia.

Nikki Haley, Trump's former ambassador to the United Nations, has accused the Biden administration of "snubbing" its ally Israel.

- 'Unmistakable signal' -

"Biden sends a welcome and unmistakable signal to Saudi Arabia recalibrating contacts and indirectly slapping down MBS," said former State Department analyst Aaron David Miller on Twitter.

"The days of the MBS direct channel to the White House seem to be over -- at least for now," he said.

Two weeks after he was sworn in as president, Biden announced an end to US backing for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen's longstanding war, which he said had created a "humanitarian and strategic catastrophe."

Biden's secretary of state, Antony Blinken, also decided to withdraw the Huthi rebels -- Saudi Arabia's foes in the conflict -- from the US list of terrorist organizations. The Iranian-backed guerrillas are battling the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.

That terrorist designation by the Trump administration was slammed by humanitarian groups, who said it would seriously hinder aid shipments to large areas of Yemen controlled by the Huthis.

Blinken already spoke earlier this month with his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, and raised the issue of human rights in the kingdom.

Trump was accused by critics of having a low regard for human rights in his support for Saudi leaders.

When the US Congress deemed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump instead reiterated his support for the prince, explaining that the relationship with and arms sales to key ally Riyadh were more important than anything else.

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