Election 2020

Mohammed bin Salman Should Be Very Worried About Biden

Saudi Arabia went all-in for Trump—and might be about to reap the consequences.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal  welcomes U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) at the Riyadh airbase on October 27, 2011, upon his arrival in the Saudi capital with a U.S. official delegation to offer condolences to the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz following the death of his brother, Crown Prince Sultan.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal welcomes U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) at the Riyadh airbase on October 27, 2011, upon his arrival in the Saudi capital with a U.S. official delegation to offer condolences to the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz following the death of his brother, Crown Prince Sultan. AFP via Getty Images

As the U.S. election goes down to the wire, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince must be pacing nervously in his gilded palace.

Mohammed bin Salman bet big on Donald Trump’s reelection when he gave his tacit approval to the decision by his Emirati counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, to sign a peace deal with the Arab world’s supposed archenemy Israel. But if Joe Biden wins, the Saudi position, which came at the cost of offending Muslim sentiment globally, makes him look more isolated.

At the start of Trump’s presidency, Mohammed bin Salman wooed Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and even referred to him—and by implication the U.S. president—as being “in his pocket.” The two 30-something novices on the world stage played statesmen and forged a close relationship. In strategic terms, that meant close coordination on Iran and the region and U.S. backing for Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power. The crown prince in particular was emboldened by Trump’s support and took an ever more bullish position on Tehran, which Riyadh sees as the main threat to its unofficial position as leader of the Muslim world since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

In May 2018, Trump walked out of the nuclear deal that lifted sanctions on Iran. That deal, and the money that began to flow into Tehran’s coffers from oil sales, made it possible for the country to double down on its support for militias across the region, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. So the reimposition of sanctions suited both Israel and the House of Saud.

Biden, however, has promised to reengage with Iran and reinstate the nuclear deal in some form. If that happens, and sanctions are lifted again, Iran would, in the Saudi view, have the funds to expand its arc of influence from Tehran through Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and as far as Yemen.

It is not clear if and how Biden intends to continue containing Iran’s ambitions in the absence of sanctions. That is a major cause for Saudi concern.

But more generally Biden described Saudi Arabia as a pariah and promised to treat it as such. He has also supported the findings of the CIA that the brutal killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was indeed ordered by the Saudi crown prince. Whether that makes a difference to policy toward Saudi Arabia in practice is one of the big foreign-policy questions arising from the election.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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