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What's behind Biden's snub of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman

(CNN)-In an area where respect, or lack thereof, is as strong as a physical blow, the press secretary of President Joe Biden has just landed a sharp jab on the jaw of the apparent heir of Saudi Arabia.

When answering a question Tuesday about when Biden would talk to the desert kingdom's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, Press Secretary Jen Psaki replied: "We've made clear from the beginning that we're going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia."

"And part of that is going back to engagement, counterpart to counterpart. The President's counterpart is King Salman, and I expect that, in appropriate time, he would have a conversation with him. I don't have a prediction of the timeline on that."

The step represents Biden's public criticism of the dictator in waiting that the CIA concluded must have learned of plans that culminated in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, whether strict procedure or planned reduction of MBS's rating.

Biden said he would treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah on the campaign trail. His NSA pick, Avril Haines, says she will publish a report on the brutal murder of Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Biden said he will handle Saudi Arabia as a pariah on the campaign trail. His NSA pick, Avril Haines, says she would write a study on the horrific assassination of Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Psaki may also have diplomatically signaled an end to the cozy and corner-cutting friendship that former President Donald Trump shared with MBS. Via phone calls and dinners with Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and special advisor on the Middle East, the volatile prince also bypassed the State Department.

That MBS was placed on alert so openly would be an inconvenience he can't cover, but that doesn't mean he's not going to be with the King on Biden's calls.

The force behind the throne and the vision that forms the future of the nation is MBS. It will be an underestimation of his sway to believe that MBS would not realize what Biden says to the King or would not help mold responses.

A stark recent example of MBS's power behind the throne played out late mid-November last year. Israeli sources leaked that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met with MBS in the kingdom, marking a massive diplomatic shift between the two countries. Multiple Saudi ministers denied it publicly and privately. Experienced Saudi watchers believe this was because MBS had not told his father about the hugely sensitive visit and needed to cover his tracks.

But maybe what concerns President Biden is not the effect within the kingdom of a political putdown, but how it would echo in the rest of the world.

The defense of human rights, and the strength that derives from it, was a core theme of his maiden presidential foreign policy address earlier this month.

"Defending freedom. Championing opportunity. Upholding universal rights. Respecting the rule of law. And treating every person with dignity. That's the grounding wire of our global policy. Our global power. That's our inexhaustible source of strength," he said.

With that strength, Biden plans to harness the help of allies to contain China, his biggest foreign policy challenger.

"We'll confront China's economic abuses, counter its aggressive, coercive action to push back on China's attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance," he continued.

As outlined by Australia's ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a recent Foreign Affairs article, Biden will use his "Democracy Summit" this year to focus on China's abuse of Uyghur Muslims and other human rights violations in an effort to crimp Beijing's growing power.

"The [Chinese Communist Party's] diplomatic establishment fears that the Biden administration, realizing that the United States will soon be unable to match Chinese power on its own, might form an effective coalition of countries across the democratic capitalist world with the express aim of counterbalancing China collectively. In particular, CCP leaders fear that President Joe Biden's proposal to hold a summit of the world's major democracies represents a first step on that path," Rudd wrote.

Little surprise then that getting tough on Saudi, a friend and relative minnow in the sea of challenges he faces from China, has sprung so readily from Biden's playbook.

Telling the Saudis that he'd no longer back their war in Yemen, including selling precision-guided bombs that helped make that military campaign possible, was one of Biden's first foreign policy shakeups. He said he'd only support them diplomatically.

Several Saudi sources have recently indicated all remains well in the long term US-Saudi relationship. Indeed, well-placed insiders speaking several months ago said they anticipated they'd hit a rough patch once Biden got to the White House, but expect to recover after that.

In the meantime, MBS does seem to be bending amidst Biden's human rights blitz. He's ordered judicial reforms, in part to protect human rights, and remove inequities in how laws are interpreted. High-profile activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, have been released from detention, although they still face onerous restrictions. But lesser known figures remain locked up and a key partner in the Obama-Biden White House, former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, remains under house arrest, according to sources familiar with the situation. How MBS addresses those detentions foretells how far the Crown Prince is willing to bend, and how far Biden is willing to go in pressuring the Saudi government. For now the message has been heard, and absorbed. A counter-punch is unlikely. Saudi Arabia's relationship with the US spans generations of presidents and kings. This could be the wobble most Saudis were expecting.

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