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Biden’s Worrying Reluctance to Confront Saudi Arabia

The administration promised a firmer hand against MBS. Saudis are still waiting.

Fayez Nureldine/Getty Images

Days before the sixth anniversary of its devastating military intervention in Yemen, which began on March 25, 2015, the Saudi government offered a ceasefire to its enemies, the Houthi rebels. Prosecuted by a coalition that includes Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom, the war has displaced four million Yemenis, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council; 16 million people require food assistance. In addition to targeting civilians, the Saudi-led coalition has been accused of torture, rape, and using child soldiers.

Despite these brutal tactics, Saudi Arabia has made little military progress. The Houthis are well entrenched in the western part of the country and have lately launched missiles deep into Saudi territory. Describing Saudi Arabia’s ceasefire initiative, an anonymous source told Reuters, “It is a case study on how to end a war that you didn’t win.”

The bitter fruits borne by the increasingly violent rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, provide ample cause for the Biden administration to “reassess” the U.S.-Saudi relationship, as it has promised to do. Thus far, however, the new president’s policies have barely shifted from those of Trump, who, along with Jared Kushner, embraced MBS and his corrupt tendencies. The U.S. continues to avoid tough decisions with its longtime ally on issues from the Yemen war to the murder of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi, to the jailing of Saudi women’s rights activists, performing the diplomatic equivalent of gently backing out of the room whenever an uncomfortable topic comes up. The result has been to give MBS a free hand to continue to do as he pleases—to murder, jail, and torture innocent people—without fear of harming his most important alliance.

For Saudi exiles and critics of the regime, the Biden administration’s weak response to MBS would represent a disappointment if there weren’t already such low expectations. For decades, the United States has either enabled or looked the other way in the face of Saudi autocracy and sponsorship of terrorism.

“The Biden administration has pulled all their punches,” said Safa Al Ahmad, a Saudi journalist. “They’ve proven to be as consistent as all American administrations are about holding Saudi Arabia accountable for human rights violations.”

The difference now is that Saudi’s mercurial leader is willing to break the boundary of what was once deemed acceptable. “The message they get is that they can basically get away with murder, and they did,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, research director for Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at DAWN, the pro-democracy organization founded by Khashoggi. “They were emboldened.”

As MBS strengthens his rule, there’s little sign of cleavage between the two allies. Despite the U.S. promising to wind down support for the Saudi war effort, the two countries’ forces remain intertwined, bound especially as partners in intelligence sharing (the CIA has long prosecuted its own war against jihadists in Yemen). Secretary of State Tony Blinken, in recent conversations with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, “reiterated our commitment to supporting the defense of Saudi Arabia and strongly condemned recent attacks against Saudi territory from Iranian-aligned groups in the region,” referring to the Houthis.

Thus far, the Biden administration’s actions provide little clarity as to exactly how the U.S. will extricate itself from Yemen, or if it truly plans to do anything besides dialing back some logistical assistance for Saudi bombing runs. Al Ahmad, who has made documentaries about the war in Yemen, thinks U.S. secrecy about its Yemeni operations is a big part of the problem. “It was easier to embed with Al Qaeda in Yemen than to get answers out of the Pentagon,” she said.

Not long ago, U.S. media granted MBS soft-focus profiles, depicting him as an ambitious reformer struggling to transform his country for the post-oil era, but this cringeworthy makeover effort looks comically strained in retrospect. From overseas wars to smashing dissent at home, his brutal authoritarianism has never been clearer. A recently declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, found that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s killing. And it’s not just Khashoggi: The kill team charged with the dissident journalist’s murder has also been linked to clandestine kill-or-capture operations targeting regime critics around the world. The U.S. has done little to stop this, refusing to sanction MBS personally or to go after his assets—such as the airline he uses to transport his death squad, which he seized when he confined prominent Saudis to the Ritz Carlton and tortured them until they gave up their assets as part of an “anti-corruption” campaign that yielded billions of dollars for MBS’s private accounts.

Without any outside force to challenge him, a sense of impunity undergirds all of MBS’s actions. This week, The Guardian reported that a “senior Saudi official” twice threatened to murder Agnes Callamard, the United Nations official investigating Khashoggi’s disappearance. As Callamard said, “Those threats don’t work on me”—she had already published her U.N. report implicating MBS in the murder—but the episode offers a chilling sense of just how far the Saudi regime is willing to go.

If MBS is willing to murder dissidents anywhere in the world, jail his most visible critics, prosecute savage wars of choice, and threaten U.N. officials, then there are few transgressions he’d leave unconsidered in the furtherance of his own ends. But that doesn’t mean he’s beyond challenge.

“MBS intimidates, but there is nothing consistent behind it,” tweeted Lina Al Hathloul, whose sister, the prominent activist Loujain Al Hathloul, was recently released after a difficult stint in a Saudi prison. “Don’t be fooled nor scared of him.”

As Al Hathloul indicates, MBS is as reckless as he is ruthless, abiding only by a self-serving governing philosophy designed to enhance his rule and wipe out enemies, who include even modestly critical op-ed columnists writing in foreign newspapers. It wasn’t necessarily logical for MBS to order the Khashoggi killing, but no one’s tried to stop him yet, so there’s little reason to restrain his brutal inclinations.

Alaoudh welcomed the ODNI report but lamented that it offered “transparency without accountability.” He recommends pursuing MBS’s assets, citing the Misk Foundation, a youth-focused charity that has served as a front for Saudi espionage, including an operation that paid two Twitter employees to spy on Saudi users. The Misk Foundation had partnerships with a who’s who of prominent U.S. nongovernmental organizations and universities, though some have since cut ties.

Meaningful accountability may be long in coming, but ongoing court cases in the U.S. and Canada now offer a valuable look into how the Saudi regime pursues its critics overseas. They also might offer a way to, if not stop MBS, then make it more difficult for him to operate.

The most significant of these cases is probably a lawsuit filed in U.S. court against MBS by Saad Al Jabri, a former Saudi intelligence official who claims a kill team was sent after him in Canada. Court filings have revealed how a 50-man (!) hit squad got stymied at Canadian customs and that the Misk Foundation was used to coordinate surveillance of Al Jabri.

In this and other cases, Saudi Arabia’s new and old guard are fighting it out in North American courts. As Safa Al Ahmad told The New Republic, it has “given us access to legal documentation that we would never have dreamed of seeing, as Saudis, in Saudi Arabia.”

“Even if we don’t win the cases, we will force the government to say things on the record,” she contends, all of which may in turn inform future legal action. Al Ahmad cited as a model what Syrians are doing to chronicle Bashar Assad’s crimes, employing universal jurisdiction to challenge Syrian officials in European courts.

What American commentators often miss is that MBS is not a polite royal, a figurehead who cuts ribbons and does celebrity appearances. He is an absolute monarch with nearly unchallenged power in his home country. As Alaoudh said, MBS is seemingly indifferent to the fate of his people. He kills when it’s convenient. When his kill team is sanctioned—but MBS himself is not—he can find another group for the job. As for his supposed peacemaking gesture in Yemen, this is hardly the first proposed ceasefire, and its Saudi-friendly conditions (including dominance over Yemeni sea and airspace) is unlikely to satisfy the Houthis. While the Biden administration continues to support the ruling regime, the domestic situation worsens: Thousands of political prisoners languish in Saudi prisons, including high-profile women’s rights activists who were jailed after MBS, to great Western fanfare, granted women the right to drive.

In short, whatever the Biden administration plans to do about MBS, it will take more than releasing a redacted ODNI report or a polite statement from Tony Blinken. “If the point of all this is to teach MBS a lesson,” said Alaoudh, “well, the mission is not accomplished.”