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Comment and analysis: Biden’s Saudi visit resets relations to the past

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East CorrespondentThursday 25 August 2022

In July, US President Joe Biden and his team set the scene for a four-day visit to the Middle East. The trip, they said, was designed to galvanize support for the US-led Western policy towards Russia’s war in Ukraine and help ease energy prices that are crippling consumers worldwide.

In a Washington Post commentary, President Biden explained his goals can be served through resetting bruised relations with Saudi Arabia, a country with 17 per cent of the world’s oil reserves, emphasizing that these are crucial in cushioning the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The war, now in its seventh month, has disrupted global markets and forced most countries to reconsider their energy security.

Ahead of the visit, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the strategically consequential Middle East was an integral part of Washington’s international efforts to ensure that allies in Europe end their dependence on Russian gas and oil. The idea was that a presidential visit to Saudi Arabia’s controversial de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) would help coax Riyadh to side with the West and offer some relief down the road through OPEC+ to boost crude output. But as the trip wrapped up, there were indications that it was the Saudis who may have accomplished most of what they wanted from the visit and that the White House may have to wait a little longer to see results.

After President Biden penned his July op-ed, the Saudis responded by clarifying theirs through the nation’s heavily controlled state-run media. The main message: the Americans cannot only consider their own interests in relations with the Gulf Arab countries. They also needed to take the interests of those regimes into account.

‘I remind His Excellency the President (of the US) that bilateral relations between our two countries cannot be reduced to the interests of America only, nor to what Washington may dictate to Riyadh culturally and socially,’ wrote Saudi commentator Khalid bin Hamad Al-Malik as President Biden met King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Al Salam Royal Palace in Jeddah. ‘It should be a balanced relationship based on common enduring interests regardless of how our views may differ on certain issues.’

Riyadh policy makers have always appeared shrewd in playing the energy card at the right time. This visit was no different and global events - particularly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine - strengthened the hand of the Saudis. It’s very much a seller’s market.

MBS got the photo op he has sought for the past four years

Leading commentators suggest the Saudis need a minimum rate per barrel to maintain their budgets as the global economy faced a slowdown. If so, Saudi Arabia and its neighbour, the UAE, can together pump as much as an extra 2 million barrels per day. Riyadh needs revenue to spend on the much-trumpeted 2030 Vision of economic diversification program.

The Saudis were also well attuned to the pressures on their visitor back home whose team are still hard-pressed to ease rising inflation, the highest in the US in four decades, particularly high gas prices, before the November mid-term elections. If the Democrats were to keep a legislative majority, they needed to address gas prices as soon as possible. And, when the winter heating season sets in, it will be even more important that the US has reached an agreement with the Saudis.

Saudi benefits

At the meetings, it was clear the Saudis see the balance slightly tipped in their favour. They managed to achieve clear gains from the trip. For one, MBS got the photo op he has sought for the past four years; a congenial fist bump with the US president who appeared to be climbing down from a principled position on human rights. President Biden had ostracized the Saudis and promised to turn their country into a pariah state in seeking justice for the shocking murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The fist bump made the front-page of most major US newspapers as well as being prominent in the Saudi media.

Among some 18 signed agreements, the Saudis got a boost for MBS’s relentless propaganda campaign. This includes a framework for the peaceful exploration of space and a deal to share information about cybersecurity threats where Saudis feels their regional rival, Iran, has a major edge. The trip was also rife with symbolic gestures that made headlines in Saudi Arabia including announcing a US agreement to raise the ceiling of a US visa to Saudi nationals from a 5-year stay to 10.

The US also used the trip to kickstart an effort to integrate Israeli military defense systems with the Arab Gulf through an Iran-facing air and missile defence system, a move the Gulf countries are welcoming as an extra line of defense against increasingly assertive Iran.

US Scorecard

By contrast, President Biden didn’t immediately go home with clear gains from the visit – at least so far. In fact, it may have had some negative aspects. Left disappointed were hundreds of Saudis who had said they wanted President Biden to lobby for the release of their loved ones jailed as part of a crackdown by MBS on dissent and on real political reform in Saudi Arabia. The notorious fist-bump alarmed rights activists too who saw this as a sign the war in Ukraine was forcing President Biden to let go of values-driven foreign policy while pundits saw a free concession to MBS.

Some members of the President’s own party were critical of what came out of the visit. Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, said that ‘If we ever needed a visual reminder of the continuing grip oil-rich autocrats have on US foreign policy in the Middle East, we got it today. One fist bump is worth a thousand words.’ CEO and Publisher of the Washington Post Fred Ryan described the fist bump as ‘shameful’ and that ‘it projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking.’

US officials insist the trip was a success because the Biden administration reestablished high-level channels of communication with Saudi leaders. The US says the objective of refreshed contacts with Saudi Arabia was to outmanoeuvre Russia, China and Iran in the region by convincing the Gulf countries that the US will stay in the region militarily and that they don’t need to reorient themselves towards rival powers.

Both Russia and China had expressed concern that the visit shouldn’t be used against them while Iran offered renewed talks with the Saudis to undermine the Americans. The Russians reminded the Saudis that they have kept their part of the Opec+ agreements while the Chinese said that there was no vacuum in the Middle East to be filled by outside powers.

It’s interesting to reflect whether what President Biden accomplished in terms of energy security has been matched or even surpassed by what the Saudis and MBS got out of the meeting. After the visit by the US President, Mahmoud Alloush, a columnist with Aljazeera wrote: ‘The conflict (in Ukraine) may have actually given an opportunity to the Gulf region to reinforce its importance not only in terms of global energy security but in the overarching world geopolitical competition.’ If President Biden’s visit managed to reset anything, it reset relations with the Saudis to the past.

Image credit: Vitalii Vodolazskyi/AdobeStock.com

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