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How The U.S.-Saudi Relationship Could Change With A Biden Victory

NOEL KING, HOST:

While he's been in office, President Trump has courted autocrats, dictators and royals. We're looking at what it might mean for them if Joe Biden wins the election. Today, Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman - If Joe Biden wins, how does the U.S.-Saudi relationship change? Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

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UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: President Trump unexpectedly chose Saudi Arabia as his first overseas trip after taking office. The Saudis lavished the president with gifts, adoration and an elaborate sword dance.

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UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

NORTHAM: Daniel Byman, a Mideast specialist at Georgetown University, says the visit helped form a strong personal bond between Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that has flourished despite an authoritarian streak the prince has shown since then.

DANIEL BYMAN: The president around the world has shown favoritism for dictators. So he seems very comfortable with what he would consider a strong leader. The Saudi leadership is also very openly pro-Trump.

NORTHAM: Trump helped the crown prince weather some serious missteps - human rights abuses, an air offensive in Yemen that's killed thousands of civilians and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Who was killed and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Trump brushed aside his own intelligence agency's findings that the crown prince approved the killing.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't.

NORTHAM: Trump notes Saudi Arabia buys weapons that create U.S. jobs. And the Saudis helped pave the way for other Gulf nations to normalize relations with Israel.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: President Trump has personally, himself, take on the role of protector and defender not just of Saudi Arabia as a government, but in the individual of Mohammed bin Salman.

NORTHAM: Sarah Leah Whitson is executive director of DAWN - Democracy for the Arab World Now - which was founded by Khashoggi a few months before he was killed. She says despite international outrage, Trump has bragged about defending the crown prince after the killing of Khashoggi.

WHITSON: Saying that he saved his ass, as well as proudly boasting that it is, indeed, American military support that gives the monarchy what it needs to survive.

NORTHAM: Vice President Joe Biden says he would take a tougher stand on Saudi Arabia. Here he is during a Democratic primary debate a year ago.

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JOE BIDEN: I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.

NORTHAM: But Georgetown's Byman says Saudi Arabia is still an important ally. And Biden's approach will likely be more nuanced than Trump's.

BYMAN: So there might be some cuts in terms of particular arms sales. There might be symbolic punishments. But the Biden administration is going to want a good relationship with Saudi Arabia despite the many problems.

NORTHAM: Simon Henderson, with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says one hot-button issue will be about confronting Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival. Biden, for example, might re-enter the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump pulled out of.

SIMON HENDERSON: And yet it appears to be a reasonably clear objective of a future Biden administration that they would rejoin either as is or in a renegotiated form.

NORTHAM: Still, Henderson says the 75-year-old U.S.-Saudi relationship will likely stay intact regardless of who wins the election. One sign of that - the U.S. recently announced it's spending $1 billion on a new embassy and other diplomatic offices in Saudi Arabia.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.