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Saudi Arabia makes major regional moves as Biden administration arrives

By modifying its foreign policy goals, the kingdom is bracing itself for the approaching change of administration in Washington.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal  (2nd R) welcomes US Vice President Joe Biden (C) at the Riyadh airbase on October 27, 2011, upon his arrival in the Saudi capital with a US official delegation to offer condolences to the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz following the death of his brother, Crown Prince Sultan.  AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)

Expecting a drastic change in Washington's foreign policy toward the Arab world, Saudi Arabia is rethinking its regional ties these days. Having reached out proactively to both Turkey and Qatar in the past few weeks, Riyadh could initiate a new realignment. Encouragingly, Ankara and Doha have reportedly reacted positively to reconciliation efforts. According to reports, an announcement on a Saudi-Qatar rapprochement can be expected at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit next month, if not before.

Bilateral tensions between Riyadh and Ankara spiraled downward with the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Just one day before the Riyadh-hosted Group of 20 summit last month, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud made a phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and both sides agreed on “keeping channels of dialogue open.”

Since then, Saudi-Turkish ties have somewhat improved and Riyadh has dropped plans to ban Turkish merchandise. This year, Turkish exports to the kingdom had fallen 16% as of October. On a positive note, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavasoglu tweeted Nov. 27, “A strong Turkey-Saudi Arabia partnership will be beneficial not just for our countries, but for the whole region.”

During his electoral campaign, US President-elect Joe Biden had vowed to “reassess” ties with Riyadh and even promised to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are” during a 2019 Democratic debate. While previously banking on a victory by President Donald Trump, Riyadh is now compelled to change its direction after Biden’s electoral success.

By modifying its foreign policy goals, the kingdom is bracing itself for the approaching change of administration in Washington. Biden also criticized Erdogan during election campaigning last year, calling him an “autocrat”; Ankara is also expected to adopt a more moderate stance to reset ties with Washington.

Mithat Rende, the former Turkish ambassador to Qatar, told Voice of America that one impetus for Saud-Turkish rapprochement “is the arrival of Joe Biden. The Saudis should be prepared [for] a different treatment by the Biden administration, so the Saudis and also the Turks, they came to understand this worsening of relations, this crisis in bilateral relations is not sustainable.” However, a new dilemma will be the sanctions just announced on Turkey by the Trump administration for its purchase of  Russian S-400 defense systems.

The kingdom’s new policy could bring peace to the Middle East after years of regional rivalry and frictions, while also having other major implications.

First, this could also be a turning point for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Convincing Abu Dhabi to end the row with Doha remains a challenge for Riyadh. Accusing Qatar of “playing the victim,” the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Youssef Al Otaiba, recently told Israeli outlet Channel 12, “I don’t think [the GCC rift] gets resolved anytime soon simply because I don’t think there has been any introspection.”

Yet there are signs Abu Dhabi's position may be shifting. In comments to a US think tank Dec. 8, Otaiba noted there were "seeds of progress" in resolving the rift. "There's a lot of commitments … to kind of tone things down, to stand down. If that holds I think it is promising. I think there is a chance that you can at least begin a process of deconflicting," he said.

Likewise, the UAE does not approve of Ankara’s foreign policy in the region. These days, Riyadh has also distanced itself from the UAE-Israel stance against Iran, and it seems to want to go it alone. Growing foreign policy divergences can be seen over the Saudi-led war in Yemen as well and the UAE’s role in Libya.

According to Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Saudi Arabia realized that Qatar was not the problem in the region after the September 2019 attacks on Aramco. He told Bloomberg, “The shock of the attacks, and the lack of an overt US response to them, led to an overdue assessment that the real threat to Saudi security came not from Doha but from other actors in the region.”

Second, where the new administration in Washington is concerned, it could find a more peaceful region to deal with when it assumes power early next year. By playing a constructive role, Riyadh could help end some major spats in the region.

Ending the blockade on Qatar has been on top of the agenda for both the Trump and Biden teams as the largest US military base in the Gulf, al-Udeid, is located there. The regional rift has hamped US interests in the region, has isolated Doha and downgraded its connectivity with its immediate neighbors.

Reopening its airspace and land borders for Doha might be among the first confidence-building measures to be undertaken by Riyadh. Qatar, by having to route its planes over Iran, has had to pay Tehran millions of dollars in fees, hindering the effectiveness of US sanctions. Not only that, US officials have fears about potential hostage situations involving Americans on any Qatar Airways flight that may be forced to land when flying over Iran.

In addition, an easing of tensions in the Middle East would give the new US administration some space to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran. At the end of the day, Washington is likely to give Saudi Arabia some leeway as it is a major, leading Gulf state, and Riyadh is relying on this plus point too. Therefore, if the Gulf blockade ends, Saudi Arabia could find itself back in Washington’s good graces.

Finally, these Saudi moves also bring together a likeminded lobby that is not embracing these new normalization agreements. (While Ankara first formalized relations with Israel in 1949, Turkey broke diplomatic ties in 2010 after nine Turkish nationals were killed in an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound boat.) Having been reluctant to enter the Abraham Accords, Riyadh has instead opted to mend fences with Ankara and Doha, which share the same stance on this matter. Recently, speaking at the online Global Security Forum, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani said, “I think it's better to have a united [Arab] front to put the interests of the Palestinians to end the occupation.”

As Cinzia Bianco, a senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics, said, “Saudi Arabia as a very large country and also a religious leader lacks the flexibility of the smaller GCC states on this issue. Riyadh would need specific enabling conditions at the international, regional and domestic level to move forward with normalizing relations with Israel.”

Ostensibly, Riyadh cannot take the domestic pressure at home if it formalizes ties with Israel, therefore it is obliged to stay away from the Abraham Accords and it could do with some regional support. Therefore, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey improving ties, the Abraham Accords could move to the background.

Recently, there have been reports about a maritime navigation issue that could prevent the settlement of the Gulf dispute with Qatar. Apparently, Qatari patrols intercepted two Bahraini coastguard vessels conducting a maritime exercise and the Bahrain interior ministry has protested and called it a “blatant violation” of international maritime conventions.

Nevertheless, as the only nation bordering Qatar, Saudi Arabia could decide to end the rift even if it does not involve the three other GCC countries — UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — that helped enforce the blockade. Wishing to placate Washington, it might just take the first step.