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White House says Biden will only deal with Saudi Arabia's King Salman directly

White House press secretary says move represents return to 'counterpart to counterpart' diplomacy, regarding King Salman as rightful Saudi leader
Since taking office, the Biden administration has been pressuring Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record (AFP/File photo)

President Joe Biden plans to shift US relations with Saudi Arabia and will seek to conduct diplomacy through Saudi King Salman rather than his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. 

Psaki announced the change during a news briefing in an apparent effort by the Biden administration to distance itself from the close relationship between former president Donald Trump, and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and the crown prince.

During Tuesday's news conference, Psaki said that the move comes as a result of the Biden administration returning to "counterpart to counterpart" engagement. 

"The president’s counterpart is King Salman and I expect at an appropriate time he will have a conversation with him. I don’t have a prediction on the timeline for that," she said.

'We've made clear... we are going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia'

- Jen Psaki, US press secretary 

Quite how Biden intends to conduct diplomacy with King Salman is unclear.

The ailing 85-year-old king, who spent time in hospital last year, has largely stepped back from an active role in diplomacy and government, though reports of his declining health have been denied by Saudi officials.

As well as being his father's heir, the crown prince is also the defence minister and is in overall charge of the Saudi economy and its investment funds.

He routinely meets visiting foreign dignitaries and conducts diplomacy with foreign leaders and is considered to be the kingdom's de facto leader.

Shifting from Trump policy 

While the US's apparent sidelining of Mohammed bin Salman will likely be taken as a snub toward the crown prince, it did not come without warning. 

"We've made clear from the beginning that we are going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia," Psaki told reporters.

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The Biden administration has been pressuring Saudi Arabia to improve its record on human rights, including the release of political prisoners such as women's rights advocates from jails and to end its military activity in Yemen. 

One of the first foreign policy moves made by the Biden administration was to announce plans to end US support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen and to halt some major Trump-era weapons sales to Riyadh. 

Psaki noted that Saudi Arabia has critical self-defence needs and the US will work with the kingdom "even as we make clear areas where we have disagreements and where we have concerns", which she said "certainly is a shift from the prior administration". 

Despite former President Trump's thorough support for the crown prince, the leader did suffer a major blow to his public reputation following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 at the hands of Saudi security personnel seen as close to MBS.

He also made controversial moves such as arresting women's rights advocates that had been campaigning against Riyadh's male guardianship laws and for the rights of women to drive, just as the government moved in favour of their calls. 

Biden and Netanyahu

Meanwhile, the US's relationship with Saudi leadership is not the only major shift in diplomatic communication since Biden took office.

After nearly one month since his inauguration, the US president has also refrained from reaching out to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

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The move has been controversial, given that both former President Trump - who also had a close relationship with the Israeli PM - and Obama had reached out to their Israeli counterparts within the first two days of office. 

On Tuesday, Psaki again addressed those concerns, telling reporters that Biden would soon have his first phone conversation with Netanyahu.

While Biden has reached out to around a dozen foreign leaders during his first month in office, the call to Netanyahu is set to be the first of Biden's calls to the region. 

"Israel is of course an ally. Israel is a country where we have an important strategic security relationship, and our team is fully engaged, not at the head of state level quite yet but very soon," Psaki said.