The virtual G20 summit, held online in the Saudi capital on 21 and 22 November, may have deprived Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of a prime opportunity to polish Saudi Arabia’s image – tarnished by allegations of human rights violations – but, if nothing else, it provided a rough sketch of the kingdom’s political future in the wake of Joe Biden’s election win.
The US president-elect’s campaign platform is a stark departure from the “blank check” Donald Trump seemed to have given the Saudi regime. In October, Biden published a statement outlining how US-Saudi relations could change going forward: “Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil. America’s commitment to democratic values and human rights will be a priority, even with our closest security partners.”
The statement also made it clear that the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two years ago, would “not be in vain, and we owe it to his memory to fight for a more just and free world”. On a separate occasion, Biden even floated the idea of making the country “the pariah that they are”.
The president-elect’s approach runs completely counter to that adopted by Trump, who instead had a tendency to look the other way regarding such matters. For instance, the outgoing president put pressure on the US Congress to sell arms to Riyadh despite the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and brushed aside CIA allegations identifying MbS as the mastermind behind Khashoggi’s killing. Not to mention the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the implementation of new sanctions against Tehran, moves that thoroughly pleased Saudi Arabia.
Will Biden be as uncompromising with Riyadh as he claims he will be? “He needs Saudi Arabia to help build regional support for a new deal with Iran and for anti-terrorism efforts, but also in terms of stabilising oil markets and Israeli-Palestinian relations,” said Saudi commentator Ali Shihabi.
Saudi Arabia seized the opportunity during the G20 meeting to send a first message to the incoming administration, with two months to go until Biden takes office on 20 January 2021. Whenever sensitive issues were brought up, Riyadh communicated a mix of inflexibility and openness.
No move to intervene in Loujain al-Hathloul’s case
Several NGOs used the G20 summit to put Loujain al-Hathloul’s case back on the table. Alongside four other women’s rights activists, she has been languishing in Saudi jails since May 2018 after advocating for the right for women to drive in Saudi Arabia and calling on the country to end its male guardianship system – reforms that have been adopted since her arrest.
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Her family claims that she has been tortured and sexually assaulted in prison. The 31-year-old woman began a hunger strike on 26 October and the UN women’s rights committee has called her worsening health “deeply alarming” and urged Saudi authorities to order her “immediate release”.
Pressed on her potential release, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told Sky News that al-Hathloul’s detention “had to do with national security issues”, without elaborating further. He denied the torture and assault allegations and added that the decision to release her is up to the Saudi courts, thereby ruling out any move by the government to intervene on her behalf.
No room for compromise on the Khashoggi case
During a media briefing, a journalist asked Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih how Saudi Arabia planned to attract foreign investors chilled by Khashoggi’s murder. The moderator initially dismissed the question, but the minister insisted on answering the journalist and his reply was unequivocal: “Investors are not journalists, investors are looking for countries where they can place their trust in an effective government that has proper economic decision-making.”
Regarding the Khashoggi case, Riyadh does not appear inclined to make amends. At the conclusion of an opaque trial in December 2019, five Saudis were sentenced to death while three more were handed prison terms for murder. This past September, the death sentences were commuted to prison terms. Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to MbS identified by the CIA as one of the main architects of the crime, was not brought to trial.
A long-standing war in Yemen
Asked about the future of the Saudi-Yemeni War MBS started in March 2015, al-Jubeir said: “We’re trying our best to try to put an end to it very quickly. When the start of military operations occurred, we announced on day one that there is no military solution to Yemen, that the solution is a political solution and that we are moving in order to take out a clear and present threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the form of ballistic missiles aimed at our towns and cities.”
Reiterating that the US-led international coalition has been “fighting for 19 years in Afghanistan”, he suggested that the war in Yemen, which has already resulted in 100,000 deaths and, according to the UN, led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, could continue over the long term. The Saudi regime is therefore unprepared to make any concessions in this respect either, in spite of Biden’s threat to end arms sales to Riyadh, the US being the country’s top weapons supplier.
A new deal with Iran?
Before the 3 November US presidential election, Biden had expressed his willingness to re-enter the Iran nuclear agreement, provided that Tehran “return to strict compliance with the deal”. If this scenario were to materialise, Saudi Arabia would be left with no other option but to re-join the agreement in order to assert its terms.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud told CNBC News that Riyadh is prepared to re-join the “JCPOA++”, referring to the original nuclear deal inked in 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In his view, the new agreement could bring an end to Iran’s “arming of militias, whether it’s the Houthis in Yemen, or certain groups in Iraq or in Syria, or Lebanon, and even beyond”.
He added: “And, of course, its ballistic missile programs and other arms programs, which [it] continues to use to spread havoc around the region.” In short, the Saudis, in line with Trump’s plan, seek to incorporate an addendum to the nuclear deal to address Iran’s regional policies.
Eased tensions with Qatar and Turkey?
Al-Saud also said that Riyadh “is continuing [its efforts] to find a way to end the blockade on Qatar” imposed by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since 2017. However, he nuanced his comments, adding that reaching such an agreement “remains conditional on addressing security concerns”, but that “there is a path toward” a solution “in the relatively near future”.
The foreign minister went on to describe Saudi Arabia’s relations with Turkey as “good” and “amicable”, an unexpected remark given the two countries’ disagreement on a number of issues. There again, perhaps his comments were influenced by Biden’s election win, as the president-elect will seek to restore consistency and unity with regard to NATO, Turkey being a significant member of the alliance. Saudi Arabia recently enforced an informal boycott of Turkish products, in part due to Turkey’s status as an ally of Qatar.
Paying no heed to the US president-elect’s campaign platform, the Saudi regime has said it is “confident that a Biden administration would continue to pursue policies that are in the interest of regional stability”.
While the G20 summit was still under way, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in the midst of a farewell tour that included a stop in Saudi Arabia to meet with MbS. The two men discussed a bilateral security and economic partnership as well as the continuation of the pressure campaign on Iran.
Although human rights NGOs led a major effort to boycott the virtual G20 meeting held on 21 and 22 November, not one country opted to do so. The summit was a big step in the direction of restoring the crown prince’s reputation on the world stage.
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