Pompeo Says U.S.-Saudi Ties Are 'Strong,' but Biden Looks to Pressure 'Pariah' State

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lauded America's ties with Saudi Arabia after he left the G20 summit in Riyadh, part of what is effectively a farewell tour ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration in January.

Pompeo's Middle East stops are cementing President Donald Trump's success in building an anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East, bringing together Israel, Egypt, and the Gulf states, despite historic enmity.

But Pompeo's visit marks the end of a four-year period in which the Gulf states enjoyed preferential treatment from the U.S., with anti-Iranian sentiment and weapons deals prioritized over domestic human rights.

These authoritarian monarchies are bracing for a Biden administration more concerned with liberty and democracy, and sure to take a tougher line against their human rights abuses.

The G20 summit was held in Saudi Arabia despite opposition from human rights groups, citing the kingdom's brutal suppression of women's rights advocates and opposition movements; the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reported attempted assassinations of other dissidents; and the ongoing war in Yemen.

Despite all the controversy, Saudi Arabia remains a valued ally for the U.S. Trump has publicly backed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—the heir to the throne who has a broad portfolio of powers—despite calls from lawmakers to censure the young prince for his alleged involvement in the Khashoggi murder, his direction of the war in Yemen and his brutal tactics of cementing his power within the country.

Pompeo tweeted Sunday: "Pleasure to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Our security and economic partnership is strong and we'll continue to harness it to advance efforts to counter malign Iranian influence in the Gulf, economic goals under the Vision 2030 plan, and human rights reform."

The next administration will be less glowing about Washington, D.C.-Riyadh ties. Biden has said the Saudi monarchy has "very little social redeeming value", accusing Riyadh of murdering "children...and innocent people" in Yemen.

Publicly, the Saudis have welcomed Biden's election and expressed hope it will benefit the region.

"I'm confident that a Biden administration would continue to pursue policies that are in the interest of regional stability," Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told Reuters on the sidelines of the G20 summit. "Any discussions we will have with the future administration will lead to strong cooperation."

But the next four years will be a rougher ride for Riyadh than the last. At a November presidential debate, Biden said that if elected, he would "make it very clear we were not going to sell weapons of war to them," deals that Trump has repeatedly celebrated. Biden said he would instead make the Saudis "pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are."

In October, the president-elect said:

"Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end US 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."

Biden's secretary of state—reportedly Obama alumnus Anthony Blinken—will front the reassessment of ties. In 2018, Blinken was among the former Obama officials who signed an open letter acknowledging that the initial U.S. backing for the Saudi war in Yemen had failed to limit or end the conflict.

Mike Pompeo, Saudi Arabia, Joe Biden, MBS
Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walk towards the Treaty Room at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on October 14, 2020. MANUEL BALCE CENETA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/Getty