The Changing of the Guard in Washington Has Prompted Change in Saudi Arabia

RASHID HUSAIN SYED: When Donald Trump was at the helm in Washington, with his son-in-law Jared Kushner serving as a senior adviser around Middle East issues, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) enjoyed near-impunity. Even after reportedly directing the brutal murder of journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia was given a clean chit by Mr. Trump’s administration. “There have been a couple of missteps,” Mr. Kushner conceded last summer, “but they’ve been a very good ally.” But MBS can no longer expect a free ride.

The inauguration of President Joe Biden has changed the mood in Washington and in Riyadh. During a primary debate, the then-candidate underlined that he would make long-time ally Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are,” and now that Mr. Biden is in office, the pressure appears to be beginning to yield results. After all, MBS needs support from Washington for his own political survival, and he knows it well, if Riyadh’s assuaging actions over the last few weeks are any indication.

Saudi officials, meanwhile, are reportedly working to overhaul the country’s unpredictable judicial system by the end of this year, partly to encourage investors long deterred by the perceived arbitrariness of the kingdom’s courts. And recently, Saudi Arabia and its allies announced that they would end their three-year boycott of Qatar, quietly dropping political demands such as ending support for the Muslim Brotherhood and closing a range of media operations, including Al-Jazeera. The decision was seen by many as an attempt by Riyadh to clear the ground for a better relationship with the Biden administration.

But some dissidents, including scholar Salman al-Odah, remain behind bars, even in solitary confinement. Dr. al-Odah was arrested hours after sending a tweet in 2017 proposing that reconciliation with Qatar was a better option than the path that the Saudi government had chosen. “He now faces the prospect of being executed on charges that include spreading corruption by calling for a constitutional monarchy, stirring public discord, incitement and ‘mocking the government’s achievements,’” his son Abdullah Alaoudh wrote in The Guardian.

Mr. Biden’s presidency has appeared to have made a difference, yet much work is still at hand. Numerous people are behind bars at the whim of the men in power. The disastrous war in Yemen still rages on. The Khashoggi saga is far from over. The feud with Iran needs to be re-examined and resolved peacefully. Human rights remain a contentious issue. The list goes on and on.

By simply being elected, Mr. Biden has indirectly and passively led to some changes in Saudi Arabia…

The original version of author’s opinion piece appeared in The Globe and Mail