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Feature Article
2022-05-01

Shady Deals and Silly Sketches: A Faltering Alliance?

As US - Saudi relations plumb new depths, the Kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, is keeping the Biden administration at arm's length, banking on the return of Donald Trump to office. Will a redoubling of American efforts to reframe Gulf security arrangements be enough to head off an irreparable break?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The poor state of relations was on full display over the Ramadan holiday as a viral sketch mocking US President Joe Biden's gaffe-ridden speeches aired on Saudi television, in what was described as a searing and unprecedented takedown. Saudi comedians have taken swipes before at previous office holders, but the over-the-top caricature of Biden (in effect an amalgam of right-wing media tropes) shocked observers. The comedy act, airing on the Ramadan sketch show "Studio 22", was produced by MBC, a network with hundreds of millions of viewers across the Middle East. Biden was portrayed as elderly and doddering, falling asleep mid-sentence, while Vice President Harris (played by a male actor in drag), tells the president what to say and corrects his repeated mistakes.

While Saudi TV has mocked several US and other Western leaders in the past, including former US President Barack Obama and his successor Donald Trump, the ferocity of the attack seemed nothing like the gentle ribbing viewers had come to expect. British PM Boris Johnson and the American Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, were also featured, in a particularly ugly segment which involved the two fighting over who would get to take home a Ukrainian refugee woman (when it was revealed she was married with child, they fought over which one would not take her). The show caused a stir in American media, which pounced on the opportunity to ridicule the both the president and the much-maligned Saudis. The furor was such that former intelligence chief and ambassador to the US, Turki al-Faysal, felt compelled to write a column downplaying the significance - "I am amused by the brouhaha in the US media about a Saudi TV comedy sketch that took the mickey out of President Joe Biden...Laugh at the humor."

Meanwhile, alarm bells have been raised over the huge investment made by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) in Affinity Partners, a private equity firm set up by Trump son-in-law and former White House advisor Jared Kushner six months after he departed the administration. Kushner had been instrumental in getting Washington to back the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (commonly known by his initials, MbS) over his predecessor Muhammad bin Nayif, who had been removed by the king to make room for his son, still widely regarded as reckless and inexperienced. The American security and foreign policy establishment had looked forward to a continuation of the status quo, and dreaded the uncertain succession scenario now unfolding. Kushner, however, quickly established a rapport with MbS largely over the messaging service WhatsApp, and the informal relationship continued for the next three years, the two seeming to regard one another as kindred spirits. In light of the transactional (and secretive) nature of Trump's presidency, in which Kushner played a key role (not to mention the casual manner in which the White House dealt with confidential information - notably, the outgoing president simply carted off boxes and boxes of classified documents to his private resort in Florida), news of Saudi's $2bn investment in the new venture was bound to attract attention.

Given that MbS heads up PIF, and reportedly intervened personally to ensure the deal took place, there are demands for an investigation, with Senator Elizabeth Warren calling for the justice department to "take a really hard look" at whether the arrangement was illegal. To date, the venture depends primarily on Saudi money, with no US involvement and little interest from anywhere else. Reportedly, potential investors were put off by Affinity's sales pitch, which seemed light on financials and heavy on innuendo, relying on repeated references to "networks" and global "networking" as the key to future success, which seemed an brazen allusion to influence peddling. The emphasis on Kushner's work with the Trump administration, rather than any track record of investing success, did not sit well.

Related articles: From Washington to Paris: Changing Times or Business as Usual?
It's Complicated: The Changing Nature of the US-Saudi Alliance
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Past Feature Articles
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A Royal Rumble: Spectacle or Portent?

With Saudi Arabia set firmly on the path to becoming a "modern" state under Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's "Vision 2030", Western-style extravaganzas such as WWE matches have been making headlines. But is royal meddling in the ring a reflection of his passion for the sport, or an ominous look into his character?

The Saga of Princess Basma bint Saud: The Collapse of Opposition?

Princess Basma bint Saud, an outspoken advocate for social reform in Saudi Arabia, was detained in a maximum security prison on dubious charges for nearly two years without any formal charges, until set free in early January. Given that many viewed her arbitrary detention as the consequence of an implicit criticism of the Kingdom's leadership, is her recent release a sign that dissent among members of the royal family has been effectively crushed, and her activism no longer perceived as a threat?

The Legacy of 1979: Religious Fundamentalism and the Royal Family (Part II)

Following the attack on Makkah's Grand Mosque by a group of millennialist zealots in 1979, a time of liberal experimentation and openness to the West came crashing to a halt as the Kingdom renewed its alliance with the conservative religious establishment. The consequences were still being felt decades later.

The Legacy of 1979: Religious Fundamentalism and the Royal Family (Part I)

For two weeks in November 1979, a ragged band of religious fanatics held Makkah's Grand Mosque, sending shock waves through the Islamic world and posing a direct threat to the legitimacy of the Al Saud. For how could kings who styled themselves 'Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques' be entrusted with dynastic rule, when they could not guarantee the safety of this most holy of places?

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