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With Biden in the White House, Saudi Arabia tries to wash its Image

Faced with the new foreign policy of the United States, Saudi Arabia tries to clean its image, stained by repression, freeing some political prisoners and defusing tensions with rival countries in the region.

Things have changed in Washington: Former President Donald Trump closed his eyes after the murder of a critical journalist and the imprisonment of dissidents in Saudi Arabia, but his successor Joe Biden has vowed to make the Saudi kingdom a “pariah” state for its violations of human rights.

Washington wishes however, according to analysts, to preserve its strategic relations with Riyadh, and at the same time reactivate nuclear negotiations with Iran, the other heavyweight in the region and great rival of Arabia.

Having sealed a reconciliation with neighboring Qatar, which ended a long rift, the Saudi kingdom has just granted parole to political prisoners, including the feminist militant Lujain al Hathlul.

Arabia also seeks to reduce tensions with another regional rival of weight, Turkey, and “lower the temperature by maintaining open contact” with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to a source close to the Saudi leaders.

– New Flexibility –

Faced with the United States’ willingness to negotiate with Iran and review its relations with Arabia, “the Saudis are trying to present themselves as allies in the resolution of conflicts in the region,” according to Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute.

According to this researcher, after years of hard line in the “national interest”, Arabia shows a “new flexibility” before the Biden administration, which recently announced the suspension of arms sales to this country.

Joe Biden also announced the end of US support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war, in which the Saudis militarily back government forces against the Houthi rebels, close to Iran.

When referring to this war, Biden spoke of “catastrophe”, because it has caused the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the UN.

In short, the new head of US intelligence services, Avril Haines, promised to publish a confidential report on the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The CIA has already concluded that Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman was behind this murder committed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul

– Preserve the pillars –

However, Washington expressed its support for Riyadh in the face of the Houthis’ attacks on Saudi territory, where there is a growing presence of the United States army.

The Wall Street Journal cited in January projects for ports and air bases in the western desert of the Saudi kingdom, which the US military is trying to develop as usable positions in case of war against Iran.

“Contrary to what was expected, the Biden administration will pursue a policy of moderation towards the kingdom,” states analyst close to power, Ali Shihabi.

According to him, Biden wants to “preserve the pillars” of the relationship between Washington and Saudi Arabia.

The arrival of Joe Biden “has greatly helped and contributed” to Lujain al Hathlul’s release last week after nearly three years in prison, according to his sister Alia al Hathlul. But the famous militants has a pending sentence with suspension of sentence and cannot leave Saudi territory.

This handful of releases has a “symbolic” character to reassure the US president, but there are many other detainees who are locked up in the kingdom’s prisons, a close friend of an imprisoned Saudi told AFP.

Ben Oakley
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