The year 2021 saw Biden administration at the helm of the United States (U.S.)’ executive. With President Biden in power, many anticipated a dissimilar American approach towards Saudi Arabia as a major player in the Middle East. Historically, Saudi Arabia had been a campaigner for economic prosperity and growth in the region, but with the arrival of the Trump administration in 2016, there was an overhaul. Force was often favoured to diplomacy, and sanctions were used to allow Saudi Arabia to obtain her strategic objectives. Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy shone as a limelight for the nature of Saudi foreign policy in the years preceding Biden.
Over the past years, the pressure from the Trump administration had led Saudi Arabia to, in its aggressive campaign to instil regional hegemony, impose an air blockade over Qatar; aid the U.S. in sanctioning Iran and maintaining strained relations with other gulf neighbours. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) allowed the U.S. to place secondary sanctions to third states that maintain any economic relations with Iran as well. What this meant for Saudi Arabia was that in order to stay in the good books of the U.S., it had no route but a hostile one towards its relations with Iran. With the arrival of the Biden administration, the tide is turning, and Saudi Arabia has adopted a more pacific approach in its regional dealings. A reconciliation agreement has been signed with Qatar; in January 2021, the normalisation of economic and diplomatic relations of the GCC states was adopted. Saudi Arabia has also dealt with the Houthi Movement, and proposed a quite generous ceasefire agreement that restores air and sea links. Although this was welcomed by the internationally recognised government, the Houthis were sceptical of this due to the continued blockade of international airports. Relations with Oman have also been improved as a result of increased dialogue with regional neighbours.
Having stated the aforementioned events, it is imperative to ask: what is the reason behind the Kingdom’s changed attitude and behaviour in its regional dealings? The answer may lie in the realisation of the unsustainability of coercive diplomacy and use of force. Saudi Arabia has realised that in order to play a key role in the politics of not only the middle east, but the global sphere, it has to shift its attention to developing a system that promotes economic growth. How this is being done is evident in a few examples. The Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman recently hosted a Saudi led ‘Future Investment Initiative’ , which attracted an array of MNC’s and actors in emerging markets. MBS looks to shift the economic dynamics of the Middle East towards Riyadh, by offering businesses as much as a 50-year exemption on corporate taxes. The purpose behind this is to dethrone Dubai as the regional hub for economic activities. A rather straightforward approach has been adopted by the Saudi leadership, in that if MNC’s are to do business with Saudi Arabia, they have to station their regional headquarters in Riyadh. This has proved for many, quite cumbersome due to the olden – conservative nature of things in the Kingdom, supplemented by a lack of Judicial safeguards for businesses operating there. This may all be set to change, with the leadership announcing a overhaul of the judicial system, and relaxing many restrictions that have in the past, seemed too much a perplexity for foreign actors.
While these developments may be promising for Saudi leaders who host American and European business leaders, what shouldn’t be ignored is the turn of tide in the relations of Israel and certain Gulf States. The Abraham Accords, signed on 13thAugust,2020, establish the normalisation of Israel’s relations with UAE, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan. What this means for Saudi Arabia, who is caught in a conundrum; on the one hand is aiding in visualising a Middle East that looks to the Kingdom for leadership, is now at a crossroads that may potentially challenge decades of politics and the very stand it takes against Israel as a leader of the Muslim world. While it may be premised that Saudi Arabia herself was close to joining this circle, it may not be so simple. The work of regional organisations such as the OIC will not allow its very political standpoint to be challenged by a U.S.-led diplomatic upheaval in the Middle East.
It is however a matter that, at the moment, is nowhere near a certain conclusion. What should be seen is how the Saudi Government works its way into the favour of the current U.S. administration, whilst maintaining its well-established trade ties with China, and the OPEC-connection with Russia, for Saudi Arabia cannot lose two international partners to appease a third.