Pariah or partner? What Biden's visit could mean for US-Saudi ties

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7 min read
07 June, 2022
Analysis: The White House has assessed that the potential benefits of meeting Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia now outweigh any moral costs.

At a Democratic primary debate in 2019, Joe Biden addressed the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen by vowing to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah”.

He was addressing his constituents in the Democratic Party. Among American liberals, anti-Saudi sentiments rose largely due to Donald Trump’s close ties to Riyadh’s leadership and moral outrage surrounding the Khashoggi case.

All that made the then-presidential hopeful’s Saudi-bashing rhetoric popular among many voters who helped him defeat Trump the following year.  

Yet no realistic analyst at the time genuinely believed that Biden, if elected, would try to transform this longstanding US partner into anything closely resembling a ‘pariah’.

"Team Biden wants to work with hydrocarbon-rich Arab states to bring about concerted international action which can reduce oil prices. There's no getting around the fact that this requires working with Riyadh"

On 2 June the New York Times reported that Biden would travel to Saudi Arabia later this month and meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

But soon after, Biden’s administration announced that his visit to the Kingdom would instead occur next month. Despite this confusion, the White House has assessed that the potential benefits of meeting MBS now outweigh any moral costs.

Facing some backlash for being seen as abandoning his campaign pledge, Biden defended his anticipated meeting with MBS. He said this visit would help “bring more stability and peace in the Middle East”.

Courtney Freer, a fellow at Emory University, explained to The New Arab how team Biden will sell this visit as important to Middle Eastern stability and the interests of American energy consumers.

“You’ve seen some language from the Biden administration praising the Saudi role in extending the ceasefire in Yemen,” she said.

“So they can basically market this as a visit that’s much more about regional peace and security as well as about helping American consumers than about welcoming Saudi Arabia into the fold in any broader way than that.”

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A host of developments in global affairs - chiefly the Russian-Ukrainian war -and US domestic politics have been favourable to MBS and his standing with Biden.

“The international environment is fast-moving, fast operating…it’s very volatile,” Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, told TNA.

“We’re now in a new war, a new crisis. The Khashoggi [murder] might not be forgotten but it’s very low ranking in terms of priorities in the White House. So, it’s not surprising that he’s undermining his own campaign pledge in this respect.”

Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, pointed out that “the elephant in the room of course is the fact that the Biden administration is shifting its previous tactic of icing Saudi Arabia out due to its commitment to a more serious human rights agenda - a risk for the administration”.

She added, however, that “amidst regional wavering and proclivity to Russia, combined with concern over stalled JCPOA negotiations with Iran, it appears that the US is willing to turn a page with Riyadh”.

Team Biden wants to work with hydrocarbon-rich Arab states to bring about concerted international action which can reduce oil prices. There’s no getting around the fact that this requires working with Riyadh.

With Democrats facing a difficult midterm election this November, Saudi officials realise that high gas prices in America constitute a major political liability.

Biden
Facing some backlash for being seen as abandoning his campaign pledge, Biden has defended his anticipated meeting with MBS. [Getty]

“The economy is always a key indicator of where a president and administration are going. The indicators at the moment don’t look good for the Democrats and Biden. He needs a win,” explained Krieg.

“Reaching out to MBS and getting any sort of a concession from the Saudis on energy is probably the greatest achievement that Biden can make at this point despite the fact that there are some people who’ll criticise him, and rightly so, for not putting pressure on MBS.”

For months US diplomats have been doing some “heavy lifting” to arrange for this presidential meeting while trying to convince the Saudis to boost oil production as the war in Ukraine further destabilises global energy markets. Then on 2 June, OPEC+ announced that it would modestly raise production levels in July and August.

Biden’s administration is hopeful that the Saudis will go further. But whether they would, and by how much, as well as the extent to which any such increases would make a big difference for Americans at the pump within these upcoming five months, remain open questions.

Ultimately, the Saudis have played their cards to make it clear to the White House that energy coordination with Riyadh can only result from Biden making concessions to MBS. The Kingdom has in effect reminded Washington that Saudi Arabia remains important to America’s national interests.

"The US might be the biggest bully around the block but it's not the only one, and with China and Russia on the rise, the Americans realise that there are alternative options potentially for the Saudis"

A perceived US withdrawal

Although Biden’s presidential meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince can probably help partially mend fences, this administration is unlikely to ever have a good relationship with Riyadh.

This has a lot to do with Gulf Arab states believing that the US is withdrawing from the Middle East while pursuing many of the Obama administration’s policies, which left the Saudis nervous about relying on the US as a security guarantor. None of this will fundamentally change because of Biden visiting the Kingdom next month.

So long as Biden remains in the Oval Office, Saudi confidence in Washington will be quite limited. Riyadh’s quest to diversify its global alliances and partnerships away from America by turning closer to China and Russia will continue to fuel friction in US-Saudi relations.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to take a neutral stance on the conflict in Ukraine and Biden’s erstwhile policy of speaking to King Salman (as opposed to MBS) have both contributed to this bilateral relationship becoming chilly.

However, the White House worries that by not engaging MBS the Biden administration would risk pushing Riyadh even closer to China and Russia at the expense of the influence that Washington still retains in the Gulf.

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“You hear people talk about the relative US retreat from the region, so I think [Biden’s planned visit to Riyadh next month] is also a way to reassure Gulf states that the US is not retreating from the region and to show that the US is still interested in its relationships with Gulf states,” Freer told TNA.

“There’s also a sense of showing to Gulf leaders that the US is still involved and that it doesn’t want to lose Saudi Arabia to other spheres of influence…it’s part of a broader diplomatic effort,” added Freer.

Team Biden realises that Riyadh could move closer to Beijing and Moscow and Washington wants to avoid the geopolitical consequences of Saudi Arabia looking further East amid this period of intensified great power competition playing out in the Arab world.

“The US might be the biggest bully around the block but it’s not the only one and with China and Russia on the rise, the Americans realise that there are alternative options potentially for the Saudis,” explained Krieg.

“The risks are much smaller of meeting MBS now than it was two years ago and the benefits of reaching out to the Saudis and coming to some sort of an agreement that Biden can come back home to and present to the media, the electorate, and the public - I think the benefits are much higher than the risks.”

"This visit no doubt strengthens MBS' leverage and confidence with the US following a period of relative cool bilateral ties"

A more confident crown prince in Riyadh

Ultimately, as the Biden administration pursues what it sees as US national interests, the Crown Prince can be expected to act in an emboldened manner. “This visit no doubt strengthens MBS’ leverage and confidence with the US following a period of relative cool bilateral ties,” explained Rose.

MBS will now capitalise on increased oil prices and new international circumstances which are favourable to his position and that of the Kingdom.

As anything but a global pariah, Saudi Arabia will be keen to remind the world’s most powerful actors - from the US to Russia and China to EU members - that they must coordinate with the Kingdom when formulating their policies in response to international crises.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero