Election 2020

Saudi Arabia’s Worst Nightmare

No one is more anxious about a potential Biden presidency than Mohammed bin Salman.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Over the last couple days, few capitals have awaited the results of the U.S. presidential election with as much anxiety as Riyadh, particularly its young and ruthless would-be king, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Even though he’s well aware that the U.S.-Saudi relationship may still be regarded as too big and important to fail, an impending victory for Joe Biden means the end of the zone of immunity the Trump administration crafted around Saudi Arabia. The country’s human rights record, its dealings in Yemen, and its reckless efforts to amass influence in its region are likely to emerge as sources of rhetorical tension, particularly with a Biden administration that isn’t looking to invest heavily in the Middle East.

The crown prince has every reason to be worried. He played U.S. President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and pro-Saudi Middle East advisor, well, convincing them that Saudi willingness to buy billions of dollars in U.S. weapons, oppose Iran, and reach out to Israel mandated allowing the Saudis to do just about anything else in the region they wanted. But a President Joe Biden would be less likely to go along with Saudi Arabia: He has described the country as a pariah, called for ending the “disastrous war” in Yemen, and urged a reassessment of the U.S. relationship with Riyadh. “America’s priorities in the Middle East should be set in Washington, not Riyadh,” Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations last year.

Under Biden, those priorities, it seems, would be soothing tensions with Iran through reentering the nuclear accord while avoiding a blowup with Israel. In those efforts, there will also be a new rival for Washington’s affections—the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed bin Zayed, who has already normalized ties with Israel, is less reckless than Mohammed bin Salman, and may thus seem to a Biden administration a more reliable partner.

Over the last couple days, few capitals have awaited the results of the U.S. presidential election with as much anxiety as Riyadh, particularly its young and ruthless would-be king, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Even though he’s well aware that the U.S.-Saudi relationship may still be regarded as too big and important to fail, an impending victory for Joe Biden means the end of the zone of immunity the Trump administration crafted around Saudi Arabia. The country’s human rights record, its dealings in Yemen, and its reckless efforts to amass influence in its region are likely to emerge as sources of rhetorical tension, particularly with a Biden administration that isn’t looking to invest heavily in the Middle East.

The crown prince has every reason to be worried. He played U.S. President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and pro-Saudi Middle East advisor, well, convincing them that Saudi willingness to buy billions of dollars in U.S. weapons, oppose Iran, and reach out to Israel mandated allowing the Saudis to do just about anything else in the region they wanted. But a President Joe Biden would be less likely to go along with Saudi Arabia: He has described the country as a pariah, called for ending the “disastrous war” in Yemen, and urged a reassessment of the U.S. relationship with Riyadh. “America’s priorities in the Middle East should be set in Washington, not Riyadh,” Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations last year.

Under Biden, those priorities, it seems, would be soothing tensions with Iran through reentering the nuclear accord while avoiding a blowup with Israel. In those efforts, there will also be a new rival for Washington’s affections—the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed bin Zayed, who has already normalized ties with Israel, is less reckless than Mohammed bin Salman, and may thus seem to a Biden administration a more reliable partner.

Assuming Tehran is interested in rapprochement and is looking for an agreement on the nuclear issue, especially if it’s accompanied by a Barack Obama-like pledge to inject more balance into U.S. policy and stay out of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s regional games, U.S. regional efforts are likely to roil Riyadh. And with Biden mostly interested in not getting sucked back into the Middle East, the administration may not be prepared to invest all that much time or attention to Saudi Arabia. What impact this distancing might have on Riyadh is unclear.

It might push Saudi Arabia to expand ties with China, especially on the nuclear issue, or perhaps the country could borrow a page from the UAE and accelerate normalization with Israel in an effort to curry favor with Washington. Whatever it does, though, it’s fair to say that under a Biden administration, with its priorities elsewhere, Saudi Arabia won’t be Washington’s darling any longer.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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