Saudi Arabia cautiously welcomes Biden as he signals new approach to Iran

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. Credit: AP

When Donald Trump chose the destination for his first foreign trip as President, he broke with tradition.

It is common for new presidents to stay close to home when they first leave the United States - for Barack Obama and Bill Clinton it was Canada, President George W. Bush travelled to Mexico.

But Trump opted for Saudi Arabia where he signed a $110 billion (£84.5bn) arms agreement which he described as “tremendous”.

Trump’s embrace of the kingdom proved to be the most consistent aspect of his foreign policy; he elevated a partnership which began in the 1940s and will certainly continue during the Joe Biden era.

Donald Trump met many times with Saudi leader Prince Mohammed bin Salman Credit: AP

But according to an administration insider, there is “next to no chance" that the new president will show the same level of warmth - he won't follow his predecessor to Riyadh’s Royal Court Palace for his inaugural international visit.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, says there is evidence that Biden will be a friend of Saudi Arabia.

He told ITV News on the morning of the presidential inauguration, in which he showed no sign of anxiety over a change in approach from the Americans: "I'm quite confident I heard in the confirmation hearings yesterday, a commitment to the protection of Saudi Arabia... from attacks directed at us.”

Prince Faisal added: "So there is, as I said, plenty of alignment and I think we will be able to find a path forward to work together on all of these issues."

"I believe that the incoming Biden administration will be very interested in maintaining security and stability in our part of the world,” he said, projecting an amiable tone, despite speculation about a downgraded relationship with the US which could alter the perceived path towards peace.

"My message to President Biden is that we are in a dangerous part of the world, but also a part of the world that offers much potential and much opportunity” Prince Faisal said, adding, “he will find that with all the challenges security poses, there are also extremely important and enticing opportunities that offer a great opportunity to deliver prosperity and success for all."

The headline from Biden’s Middle East policy is likely to be his new approach towards Iran, but inevitably that will mean a new approach towards Saudi Arabia, its regional foe.

There is potential for acrimony between Biden and America's old ally which he has described as a “pariah” whose leadership has "very little social redeeming value”.

The new US administration has already said it will declassify an intelligence report into the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which might allow it to blame Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directly for the killing.

President Biden has pledged to rejoin the Iran deal which has been in limbo since the US pulled out of the treaty. Credit: AP

The US and Saudi Arabia agree that somehow, Iran needs to be contained - that the dispute between it and its arch-rival has the potential to escalate the long-running proxy war between them.

Saudi Arabia has already said it will develop nuclear weapons if Iran does so.

But Washington and Riyadh may differ more than they ever did during the Trump era on the question of how Iran should be approached, what Saudi Arabia’s role should be and whether Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran really is the best solution.

"I think he should do what he has said he intends to do, which is make sure that Iran does not get access to nuclear weapons,” said Prince Faisal, focusing on common ground.

Encouraging Biden not to steer too far from Trump’s approach towards Tehran, he added that the US should “also address Iran's other problematic activities, including its ballistic missile programme, its destabilising activities are in the region.” 

Joe Biden has promised to release the information on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Credit: AP

One of the earliest challenges for Biden will be over the Iran nuclear deal, which was designed to constrain its ambitions, but which Trump abandoned in 2018, saying it failed to address its ballistic missile program and its role in the wars in Yemen and Syria.

President Biden has pledged to rejoin it after Iran continued to build its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, though members of his administration have since said the return of the US to the accord is unlikely to be swift. 

But Saudi Arabia believes the deal is a “flawed agreement” and is nervous about a return to Obama-era engagement with the Iranians.

It is unclear how the Biden team will find the balance between the need to be seen to be holding the Saudis to account and the risks of alienating it.