Under a new US glare, Saudi Arabia is rushing to release some political prisoners and makeup with regional rivals, attempting to clean up its act as it braces for a policy reset in Washington.
US President Joe Biden pledged during his campaign to make the kingdom a “pariah” after it got a free pass under Donald Trump, but observers say he is instead adopting a middle path.
While scrutinising human rights, his new administration is expected to work to preserve a valuable security partnership while it moves to reboot nuclear talks with Riyadh’s arch-enemy Tehran.
Saudi Arabia has provisionally freed some political prisoners — including activist Loujain al-Hathloul, famed for her campaign to end the ban on women driving — in what many see as a nod to Biden.
Seeking to fortify its regional position in the new era, Saudi Arabia also led its allies last month to end a bitter three-year dispute with neighbouring Qatar, partly at the urging of the US which wants them to present a united front against Iran.
The kingdom is also keen for detente with America’s NATO ally Turkey, following a public boycott of Turkish goods last year as their rivalry intensified in the wake of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder in Istanbul.
A source close to the Saudi leadership told AFP it was “lowering the temperature by keeping lines open with (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan even though there is no love lost”.
‘A new flexibility’
“Confronted with the new US plans to reengage with Iran and critically review US-Saudi ties in terms of values, the Saudis have been eager to present themselves as partners in resolving the conflicts in the region,” said Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“The detente with Qatar has been accompanied by a number of other Saudi moves — exploring de-escalation with Turkey and hastening the settlement of political trials and detentions that have generated condemnation abroad.”
“All of these mark reversals of political stances that had been pursued vociferously with much public trumpeting of Saudi national interests, signalling a new flexibility,” Diwan added.
Recent official statements from Washington have called Saudi Arabia a “security partner”, instead of what the Trump administration highlighted as an “ally” and an important buyer of US military hardware.
The change of tone, observers say, illustrates that Washington is steering away from Trump’s transactional relationship with Saudi Arabia as it reviews arms sales to the kingdom.
Biden’s inauguration “helped and contributed a lot” in securing Hathloul’s conditional release last week after three years in jail, her sister Alia al-Hathloul said last week.
But a relative of another Saudi jailed for years told AFP the handful of releases were “symbolic” gestures to appease Biden, while hundreds taken in a sweeping three-year crackdown still languish in prison.
Those released face multi-year travel bans, which means they remain vulnerable to what the relative, who asked not to be named, called “state coercion”.
‘Preserving the pillars’
In a setback for the kingdom, Biden recently halted support to Saudi offensive operations in the grinding six-year conflict in Yemen, which he called a “catastrophe” that has to end.
But he pledged US support in defending the kingdom’s territory as it increasingly comes under missile and drone attacks by Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
The US military is expanding its presence in Saudi Arabia, with plans to develop ports and air bases in the kingdom’s western desert to prepare should war ever break out with Iran, the Wall Street Journal reported last month.
“Contrary to expectations, all the evidence so far indicates the Biden administration will pursue a moderate policy towards the kingdom consisting of symbolic measures to satisfy some elements in the Democratic Party, while preserving the pillars of the strong historic relationship between the two countries,” said Saudi author and analyst Ali Shihabi.
To manage ties with Washington, Saudi Arabia is on a hiring spree for lobbyists.
The Iowa-based firm Larson Shannahan Slifka, known as the LS2 group, signed a $1.5 million contract with the Saudi embassy in 2019, according to a public filing.
In December, after Biden’s election win, LS2 sub-contracted the Wisconsin-based Arena Strategy group for tasks including “informing the public, government officials, and the media about the importance of fostering and promoting strong relations” between the US and Saudi, according to another filing seen by AFP.
They will be kept busy as the relationship is put to the test.
Biden’s new Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, has said she intends to declassify a US intelligence report into Khashoggi’s murder.
The CIA is believed to have concluded that de facto Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the killing inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
A declassification that officially blamed the murder on the young prince would be a major embarrassment for Riyadh, which denies his involvement.