Joe Biden's Saudi Weapons Freeze Leaves 'Pariah' Mohammed bin Salman in the Cold

President Joe Biden's temporary freeze on American weapon sales to Saudi Arabia signals that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will not have the free run of the White House he enjoyed under former President Donald Trump.

Biden was clear in his criticism of the crown prince—colloquially known as MBS, the heir to his father King Salman and holder of much of the power behind the throne—on the campaign trail, and vowed to hold the "pariah" kingdom to account for its raft of human rights abuses at home and abroad.

New Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the Biden administration is now reviewing weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates agreed by Trump. The review, he told reporters, aims "to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy."

The Wall Street Journal first reported Wednesday that the freeze will cover billions of dollars of weapons sales to the two nations, which include precision-guided munitions for the Saudis and F-35 fighter jets for the Emiratis. Blinken said the review was "typical" for an incoming administration, but it appears an early sign of a more restrictive weapons sales stance under Biden.

MBS and his allies have, according to Reuters, been working to soften the Biden administration, presumably hoping that the more pointed criticisms would be left on the campaign trail.

But the new president appears set on reviewing the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which has been mired by the conservative kingdom's long history of suppressing internal political dissent, plus MBS's bloody war in Yemen and his campaign to silence critics abroad, including murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

These have all prompted bipartisan condemnation in the U.S. Lawmakers voted to end American logistics, intelligence and weapons support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen after the Khashoggi murder, a clear censure of MBS. Trump vetoed the bill, and stood by the crown prince despite the CIA's conclusion that he ordered Khashoggi's murder.

Riyadh will be wary of further public relations damage after Biden's new director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, told senators she would declassify a report on the Khashoggi murder.

For Trump and his administration, the alliance with Riyadh was more important than human rights abuses. The kingdom remains a huge purchaser of American weapons, a host of thousands of American troops, a key part of the nascent anti-Iran Middle East alliance, and a powerful ally within the OPEC oil cartel.

But Biden has been clear that he will take a more skeptical approach. At a November presidential debate, Biden said he would "make it very clear we were not going to sell weapons of war to them." Instead, he said, a Biden administration would make the Saudis "pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are."

In October, Biden said: "Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end U.S. 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."

The Biden administration has already blocked some sanctions on the Iran-backed Houthi rebel group in Yemen, which is fighting against the Saudis. The sanctions were put in place by Trump in his final days in office despite concerns they would make foreign aid deliveries to Yemen more difficult, exacerbating the severe humanitarian crisis there.

The Saudis, along with Israel and other regional American allies, are also set against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran. Biden and his team have said they want to revive the accord, from which Trump withdrew in 2018, but the anti-Iranian regional axis fears that sanctions relief and diplomatic rehabilitation for Tehran will weaken their own strategic positions.

MBS and the Saudi royals will have to walk a fine line with Biden, who has vowed to put democracy and human rights at the center of his foreign policy agenda. The kingdom has made little secret of its human rights abuses, but will want to stay in Biden's good graces as its economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic and MBS pushes ahead with his Vision 2030 plan to modernize and liberalize the Saudi economy.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told Reuters in November: "I'm confident that a Biden administration would continue to pursue policies that are in the interest of regional stability...Any discussions we will have with the future administration will lead to strong cooperation." But despite the warm words, Riyadh knows the next four years will be a rougher ride than the last.

Saudi fighter jet models at UAE airshow
This file photo shows models of Saudi Royal Air Force fighter jets during the Dubai Airshow on November 12, 2017, in the United Arab Emirates. KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images/Getty