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Feature Article

An Election Dilemma: Moving Forward or Nursing Wounds?

As world leaders rushed to send congratulatory messages to US President-Elect Joe Biden on his electoral victory, Saudi Arabia was notably silent. It was no surprise that the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, had his hopes pinned on a Trump win, but has the apparent snub already set the tone for future relations for the new administration?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Despite Biden not being the preferred candidate among many Arab countries, leaders in the region lost no time in performing the customary ritual of promptly hailing the election winner. The United Arab Emirates was the first to officially praise Biden, followed by Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Oman and others. The UAE's haste to deboard the Trump train was particularly striking, as that nation has benefited from being an enthusiastic supporter of the President - in return for going along with a proposal for normalization of ties with Israel (a Trump priority), it is expected to take delivery of a massive arms package including 50 stealth F-35 fighter jets worth $23 billion. Sudan too, which the Trump administration had promised to bring in from the cold, by way of removing it from a list of state sponsors of terror (again, as a reward for participation in the Israeli peace plan), did not hesitate to reach out to Biden. Saudi, however, still held out. The Kingdom did find time to send off statements to two other heads of state, including a note to the president of Tanzania on his reelection, but by the second day, the lapse was becoming awkward. Was there internal debate within the palace over the "appropriate" amount of time to wait before congratulating the apparent victor? Were the royals holding out to avoid antagonizing their benefactor, or were they sending a not-so-subtle message that they were dreading a Biden presidency?

The crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), has been the biggest recipient of Trump's largesse, identifying his key weakness (the insatiable need for flattery and praise) right from the outset. The Saudis took advantage early on, enjoying the prestige that came from being the first foreign destination for Trump in 2017, rolling out the red carpet and treating him as one might a fellow royal, and from there relations only became closer. Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner made frequent trips to Riyadh, while he and MbS forged a personal bond that allowed the two to conduct business through informal backchannels. MbS boasted about having Kushner "in his back pocket", while Trump bragged about keeping the Saudis protected from the repercussions of the Jamal Khashoggi murder at Riyadh's Istanbul consulate in 2018. Thus far, despite the swelling outrage over rights abuses and the crackdown on dissent, the Americans under Trump have been Saudi's most staunch and reliable defenders. And without US support, MbS could not have pressed on with his campaign in Yemen, which has now dragged on for five years (a quick and easy victory had been promised). When Congress voted to end the sale of arms to the Kingdom (which were being used in Yemen), Trump vetoed it. (Indeed, a quarter of all US weapons sales in the five years between 2014 and 2019 went to Saudi.) With Trump out of office, MbS sees the end of the road for such carte-blanche indulgence.

Finally, on the Sunday after the media had projected the results, the royals sent their belated congratulations. "King Salman praised the distinguished, historic and close relations between the two friendly countries and their people which everyone looks to strengthen and develop at all levels", state media added. Although the White House continues to dispute the outcome, and a handful of holdouts (Russia, notably), have remained silent, the outcome was clear, and there was nothing to be gained by delaying further, and only future damage to the relationship with such a pointed diplomatic snub.

Biden had pledged in his campaign to take a hard line with the Saudis, demanding more accountability over the killing of Khashoggi and calling for a resolution to the Yemen war. "Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia], end US support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil," he said in October.

Related articles: Disruption Top to Bottom: The Reappearance of Bandar bin Sultan
Ambition Meets Reality: The Crown Prince's Dilemma
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Page 2: campaign vs reality?
Saudi Business News
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Water supplied to Najran villages polluted, residents claim
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Disruption Top to Bottom: The Reappearance of Bandar bin Sultan

In what many are calling a "writ of divorce", the Saudi royals have blasted the Palestinian status quo and let it be known that henceforth, foreign policy will not be driven by traditional considerations. Does this represent a victory for the reformist views of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, or is it a strategic shift based on a pivot away from American leadership in the region?

Ambition Meets Reality: The Crown Prince's Dilemma

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, now effectively in charge of policy, has gambled that the support of the younger generation and a pragmatic approach to foreign and domestic affairs will win out over the traditional pillars of the Saudi state in his quest for major reform. His over-reliance on an American ally may jeopardize his ambitions, however, if a change in Washington comes to pass.

An Unpredictable Prince: Realpolitik Or Royal Politics?

The juxtaposition of two events over the past month throws into focus the challenges faced by Saudi Arabia as the country nears the end of an era. First, the aging king was hospitalised; then news broke that his son and heir was alleged to have sent a hit squad to Canada in pursuit of a settling of scores. The timing of the announcements highlights the fragility of the current structure, wherein the monarch drifts towards the periphery, and policy depends on the whims and hidden motives of the crown prince.

Royal Family Domestic Politics in the Modern Era: Co-optation, Rebellion and Dissent (Part II)

With the end of the rebellion against what was to become the ruling branch of the family, power became more concentrated then ever in the hands of a small group of senior royals. The extended period from the 1980's until the present era, when a succession of aging kings took their place on the throne, denying the next generation the opportunity to establish itself, has accelerated this process. Now, as a new crown prince waits his turn, little remains of the traditional royal family structure.

Royal Family Domestic Politics in the Modern Era: Co-optation, Rebellion and Dissent (Part I)

Concerns are mounting for the well-being of a number of detained family members, amid uncertainty over the reasons for their arrest. The Al Saud is no stranger to intra-familial struggle, as an often bloody history shows, but does the treatment of internal conflict represent a marked shift in approach?