At the start of October, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made a stunning announcement: It was making Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the next-in-line to be king, the country’s prime minister. A day later, the Department of Justice announced a 45-day delay in acknowledging MBS‘ new political title because, if they did recognize it, then MBS would be insulated from being sued — MBS is being sued by the widow of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi-born critic of MBS who was murdered by agents of the crown prince while he was at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey in 2018. Since becoming president, Joe Biden has vowed to hold MBS accountable for Mr. Khashoggi‘s murder.
The delay by the Biden DOJ to recognize MBS’ new role as prime minister and therefore reaffirm MBS’ sovereign immunity has created tension with Riyadh. Two days after this fateful delay by the Biden DOJ, the leadership of Saudi Arabia decided to cut oil production by a staggering 2 million barrels per day.
The Saudi production cuts will undoubtedly harm the U.S. economy by raising prices at the pump and damage the Democratic Party’s chances in the coming midterms.
This is just one provocation taken by the Biden administration directed against MBS and the Saudi government since Mr. Biden took office in January 2021. President Biden is committed to normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia’s chief rival in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As the Biden administration attempts to distance itself from Saudi Arabia and move closer to Iran, Riyadh is striking back. But beneath the surface, there is something more. Mr. Biden’s antipathy toward MBS goes deeper than simply being disgusted by MBS’ abysmal human rights record. Mr. Biden and his national security officials likely view MBS as a problem to be removed as quickly as possible.
MBS is an impediment to the Biden administration’s foreign policy and he has been a problem for the Democratic Party since 2015 when he was the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia who launched his devastating war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. MBS is a vociferous opponent of Iranian ambitions to expand beyond their territory and is one of the few local players who are willing to take decisive action against Iranian expansionism — with or without U.S. support.
Because Mr. Biden wants to normalize relations with Iran and essentially hand Tehran nuclear weapons, he needs Saudi Arabia and Israel on board. Neither power wants the U.S. to restore ties with Iran and let the Islamic Republic get nuclear arms. Thus, MBS is an intransigent opponent of the primary element of the Biden-Mideast policy.
Clearly, Mr. Biden cannot tell friends from foes. Namely, Iran is a foe whereas Saudi Arabia, for all its imperfections, is a friend. Mr. Biden’s failure to recognize this means the United States is being led to a very dangerous place in its relations with the Middle East.
In the aftermath of the perfectly predictable Saudi decision to cut its oil production, Mr. Biden predictably declared that his administration was “reassessing” America’s relations with the kingdom. While this could mean that the Biden administration is merely going to send a strongly written diplomatic demarche to Riyadh, given how badly the Biden team has fumbled a host of important foreign policy matters, it could also mean that Mr. Biden is laying the groundwork for a truly irresponsible move toward regime change in Saudi Arabia.
After all, MBS was not even supposed to be the next king. His older cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), was originally slated to be the next king. A man who ran the kingdom’s fearsome intelligence services for two decades and had deep ties with the American intelligence apparatus as well as the establishment leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties, MBN was removed by the younger, ambitious MBS once it became clear that then-candidate Donald J. Trump, not Hillary Clinton, would be elected president in 2016. Unlike MBS, the older MBN did not have the connections to the Trump team that MBS had cultivated — specifically with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Unknown and unpreferred by the elites who run Washington, MBS quickly displaced MBN — much to the chagrin of the American elite. MBS was a staunch anti-Islamist; he spent the entirety of the Trump administration moving the kingdom’s counterterrorism capabilities close to those of the Americans while shepherding in the historic Abraham Accords. The accords ran counter to what many elites in Washington, specifically within the Democratic Party, wanted for the Mideast. Whereas the elites favored empowering Iran at the expense of America’s traditional Sunni Arab and Israeli allies, the Abraham Accords sought to bring together the Sunni Arabs with their former Israeli adversaries to contain Iran.
Well before Mr. Trump was elected, the Western elite made certain calculations about Iran’s rise and MBS threatened all that (even though MBS’ policies would better serve U.S. national interests in the Mideast). Add in MBS’ harsh treatment of his political opponents and now the sudden production cut in response to an unwanted Biden administration policy aimed directly at the crown prince — a decision that could affect the 2022 midterm elections, weakening the Democrats’ chances and empowering their Republican rivals — and the situation is ripe for a politically motivated covert action against MBS’ inconvenient reign.
The Biden administration is placing its own political interests ahead of the interests of the United States at a time when Iran could break out with its nuclear weapons program and become the greatest threat to world peace. MBS understands this threat and refuses to accept the insane Democratic Party’s postulation that Iran is a rational actor. The Iranian regime is not rational.
What’s more, it serves the interests of two of America’s great power rivals, China and Russia. Yet MBS has made himself an enemy of Mr. Biden and the elites who surround him. That MBS is using oil as a political weapon aimed at the heart of Biden and the Democratic Party’s power means, in the eyes of the craven Washington elite, that MBS must go. What few appear interested in acknowledging is that Mr. Biden has been waging war on MBS’ legitimacy since he ran for president in 2020.
What else are MBS and the Saudi government to do? They certainly aren’t going to remove him — and if they don’t, one can guarantee that Mr. Biden will blow this entire ordeal out of proportion, use it as an excuse to rid himself of a troublesome ally in Riyadh, and likely unwittingly empower the very elements in the Middle East that mean to destroy the United States.
If we are not careful, Mr. Biden’s actions to undermine and possibly covertly overthrow MBS may lead to the creation of an Islamist Saudi Arabia. Be watching this story because we’re about to witness the greatest self-inflicted wound in the Middle East since President Jimmy Carter turned a blind eye to the Shāh’s downfall in 1979.
Even if Mr. Biden is not planning to overthrow the pro-American regime in Riyadh, he is doing much to weaken it. Should he get what he wants; should the king of Saudi Arabia replace MBS with another figure, it might indicate that the House of Saud is weak and could easily empower the Islamists of Saudi Arabia. Mr. Biden should leave well enough alone and make nice with the Saudis rather than antagonize them over a minor concern like the Khashoggi murder.
• Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers) and “The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy” (Republic Book Publishers), due out Oct. 18. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.
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