Saudi carves path out of US partisan politics with Qatar detente

The sight of President Donald Trump’s supporters storming the United States Capitol on Wednesday laid bare an American political landscape that has become destructively partisan.

President-elect Joe Biden didn’t mince words about the frenzied masses laying siege to the Capitol. “They were a riotous mob, insurrectionists, domestic terrorists,” he said on Thursday.

Most nations have managed to largely sidestep that acrimonious dumpster fire over the past four years by avoiding the appearance of seeming to favour one side of the US political divide over another.

Not Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), have enjoyed a very close relationship with the Trump administration.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has shown nearly unwavering support for Riyadh, over the objections of some members of Congress who have not been nearly as willing to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record.

MBS is reportedly very chummy with Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner.

Riyadh was delighted by Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal with world powers and unleash a torrent of sanctions to cripple Iran’s economy.

And when US shale producers faced an existential threat to their existence during last year’s crude price crash, Saudi Arabia – at Trump’s urging – agreed to call a truce in the oil price war it initiated.

But this week, as Trump prepares to leave the Oval Office, Riyadh seized the moment to remove at least one foreign policy headache for the incoming Democratic administration by taking a significant step toward healing its rift with Qatar.

A narrow window to reset

US-Saudi ties are not built on shared values but mutual security and business interests.

For three-quarters of a century, that has been sufficient to persuade both Democratic and Republican US administrations to maintain the marriage of convenience, and Riyadh to play ball with whoever takes up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But the perceived agnosticism toward the US’s main political parties that has traditionally characterised Riyadh’s engagement with Washington dissolved on Trump’s watch.

“You’re at really the first time when the Saudi-American relationship has become tied up in partisan politics,” said Gause. “A large number of Democratic politicians in Congress and the Democratic foreign policy elite sees Saudi Arabia as not just a problematic partner, but one that has chosen to embrace the Republican Party.”

Saudi Arabia has few easy options for putting its relationship with an incoming Democratic administration on more amicable footing.

Improving its record on women’s rights would have helped. But Riyadh showed no inclination of doing that when reports surfaced late last month that prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul had been sentenced to nearly six years in prison by a Saudi terrorism court.

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