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How U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relations Could Change Under Biden Administration

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Now a look at the changing relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Former President Trump stood by the kingdom despite the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the disastrous war in Yemen. President Biden promised to get tougher. NPR's Jackie Northam reports on what lies ahead.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: There's been a lot of bad press for Saudi Arabia since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began consolidating power several years ago - human rights abuses, regional bullying and a devastating Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen that's killed thousands of civilians. For the most part, the Trump administration turned a blind eye - not so for the Biden administration.

ELANA DELOZIER: I think it's going to be putting the Saudis' feet to the fire for the next six months.

NORTHAM: Elana DeLozier with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says now President Biden wants to review the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and its crown prince.

DELOZIER: The Biden administration has been very clear that they are going to reset, and Biden has used pretty tough language specifically against Mohammed bin Salman, calling him a pariah. And this is really tough language that we're not used to.

NORTHAM: DeLozier says already, Biden administration officials have voiced serious concerns about actions by the crown prince - silencing royal rivals, the widespread arrest of clerics and activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who led the charge for women to drive in Saudi Arabia. There are also concerns about targeted killings, says DeLozier.

DELOZIER: I would say the really big one is Jamal Khashoggi and the death of Jamal Khashoggi, which a lot of people in Congress and the folks that surround Biden thought the Trump administration didn't deal adequately with.

NORTHAM: The administration has already said it will declassify a report by U.S. intelligence agencies into the death of Jamal Khashoggi. Trump refused to make it public. He viewed the U.S.-Saudi relationship as transactional, giving the crown prince a pass because the kingdom buys billions of dollars in U.S.-made weapons. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy told NPR he's looking for a tougher stand on future U.S. weapons sales.

CHRIS MURPHY: They're being used in active conflict zones in ways that often violate U.S. law and international law. It's not in our interest to continue to sell them weapons that fuel an arms race in the region.

NORTHAM: The State Department already froze the sale of billions of dollars in munitions to Saudi Arabia while it reviews a deal signed in the final days of the Trump administration. But some warn the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia's help for its agenda. Firas Maksad with George Washington University's Elliott School for International Affairs says the Biden administration hopes to reengage with Iran over the nuclear deal. That will need regional support, and Maksad says freezing weapons sales sends the wrong signal to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies.

FIRAS MAKSAD: And I feel like the messaging and the optics of the decision taken is all wrong as far as our Gulf allies are concerned. We need to be reassuring our allies as we engage the Iranians and making sure to work through and with our allies rather than despite them in trying to achieve a better version of the nuclear deal.

NORTHAM: Maksad says the Saudis are trying to improve relations with Biden. They've ended a feud with Qatar, where the U.S. has a large military base, and they might soon release the female activist al-Hathloul. Maksad says the Saudis hope that will make it easier for Biden to maintain the longtime alliance.

Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.