Before 2019, never had a US president referred to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a ‘pariah’ on his campaign trail. Joe Biden’s Saudi-bashing as a presidential candidate, plus a host of other delicate issues, have fueled significant friction between the White House and Riyadh.
Today, relations between the US and Saudi Arabia are probably at their worst since the events of September 11, 2001, stymied by a major trust deficit in the relationship between Biden’s White House and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
By the same token, the Biden administration views Saudi Arabia as a critical partner in the Persian Gulf and continues to sign massive arms deals with the kingdom.
For all the rhetoric on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose brutal murder MbS is said to have sanctioned, team Biden never imposed state-level sanctions against Saudi Arabia, nor on the crown prince himself.
Meanwhile, the administration praises the role of Riyadh in the Arab world’s trend toward normalization with Israel.
Within this context, Biden’s first presidential trip to West Asia – in which he will go to Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Saudi Arabia this week – will be important to White House efforts to mend fences with Riyadh and salvage this decades-old partnership.
In a US mid-term election year that will likely lead to significant gains for his Republican opposition, Biden seeks to score major foreign policy points in Jeddah that can be used for domestic consumption back in Washington this summer.
Incentivizing Biden to convince the Saudis to increase their oil production are the millions of US motorists struggling with high gas prices and the many average American voters grappling with generational high inflation.
Energy prices are therefore extremely important to Biden’s controversial trip to the kingdom. Yet, this month’s summit in Saudi Arabia is unlikely to give Americans much relief at the gas pump between now and the elections in November.
Shifting the narrative from oil to peace
Determined to ensure that the US public does not tie this tour’s success specifically to a Saudi oil production hike – which could easily result in the Biden administration’s humiliation – the White House message is that this visit to Jeddah largely concerns peace in the region.
As Biden wrote in the Washington Post, avoiding a future in which the region is “coming apart through conflict” is of “paramount importance” to the White House, and he will “pursue diplomacy intensely – including through face-to-face meetings – to achieve our goals.”
According to Biden, if the region comes together through “diplomacy and cooperation” there is a lower chance of “violent extremism” threatening US national security or “new wars that could place new burdens on US military forces and their families.”
This trip comes at a time in which there is a fragile truce in Yemen, where the Saudis and Emiratis have waged a devastating seven-year war. Although the conflict remains unresolved, the drastic reduction in violence and increased humanitarian assistance to the war-torn country have given millions of Yemenis desperately needed relief.
The truce in Yemen has been possible in part because of Saudi and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member support, which makes it easier for Biden to justify his visit to Jeddah. After all, it was the Khashoggi affair and the conflict in Yemen that ‘Biden-the-candidate’ cited as reasons for his ‘pariah’ treatment of Riyadh.
Thus, moving toward a settlement to this conflict, in which the last two US presidents were heavily involved in escalating, helps Biden save face as he makes this trip. If the president leaves the kingdom with some guarantees from the Saudis about their commitment to future truce extensions, that could be interpreted as a win for Biden.
“The US administration is beginning to realize that President Biden can’t just ignore Saudi Arabia and that it’s in the best interest of the two countries to start working together, not just to reduce oil prices and pressure on US consumers, but also to further the stability of the Middle East and contain [the Iranian] threat whether in Lebanon or Yemen,” Najah Al-Otaibi, an associate fellow at the Riyadh-based King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, said in an interview with The Cradle.
Expanding on her point, Al-Otaibi said that “Saudi Arabia has recently agreed to extend the United Nations-mediated ceasefire with Yemen, and Prince Mohammed [bin Salman] played a critical role in this move, according to Biden’s officials who thought it is a step forward to solving the conflict.”
Last month, Biden clarified that, for him, bolstering Israel’s security was a major motivation for the trip to Saudi Arabia. Despite some speculation among pundits that Saudi Arabia will soon join the Abraham Accords, this is highly doubtful, especially with King Salman still on the throne. However, with MbS “the reformer” as future king, normalization between “the Land of the Two Holy Mosques” and Israel is all the more likely.
Insecurity and an ‘Arab NATO’
Even if Riyadh remains outside the Abraham Accords, there is much that Saudi Arabia can do to make it easier for other Arab-Muslim countries to normalize with Tel Aviv, and for the kingdom’s allies, already signatories to the Abraham Accords, to build on their overt relations with the Israelis.
While in Jeddah, Biden will likely push the Saudis to take some more baby steps toward a de facto normalization with Israel, even if it remains unofficial. One way for the kingdom to do so would be by granting permission for Israeli planes to transit Saudi airspace on their way to the UAE, Bahrain, and other countries.
Other avenues could include bolstering involvement by Israeli technology firms in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Saudi–Israeli military cooperation, and more visits by high-ranking Israeli officials to the kingdom that could build on former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s November 2020 visit to Neom.
Shoring up US–Arab partnerships in preparation for the increasingly likely scenario that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) talks with Iran will collapse in acrimony is a high priority for Biden.
Against the backdrop of Iran’s nuclear advancements as negotiations further stall, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states attending the GCC+3 summit are preparing for a post-JCPOA future in which friction between the US and Israel, on one side, and the Islamic Republic, on the other, appears set to intensify in the coming weeks and months.
“I think Iran, not oil, is the main issue as Iran moves closer and closer to having all the parts it needs to put together a nuclear bomb,” David Ottaway, a Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center, told The Cradle. “Only a revival of the Iranian nuclear deal can stop that trend, and nobody is optimistic about that happening now.”
Although Riyadh and Tehran have been in direct talks via Baghdad since April 2021, the Saudi leadership wants assurances from team Biden that Washington remains committed to the kingdom’s security regardless of the fate of the 2015 nuclear accord, and that the US will work with its Arab allies to counter Iran in regional hotspots, such as Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Yet, mindful of the little trust Saudi officials have in the Biden administration, it is difficult to imagine the US president gaining enough confidence from Riyadh during this upcoming trip vis-à-vis Iran-related issues. As Ottaway told The Cradle:
“I suspect [Biden] will declare another US commitment to defending the kingdom from its foreign enemies, but after Trump’s failure to take any action after Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities in 2019, he needs to say or do something to back up [what are] just words.”
In recent weeks, there has been much discussion about an Arab NATO that includes Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other US-friendly Arab states. Biden will seek to advance this initiative as the west and its allies and partners in West Asia remain worried about Iran’s regional foreign policy agenda.
“[Biden] wishes to reaffirm the historical strength and enduring reciprocity of the alliance, but also to press Riyadh on cooperating more on the energy side – particularly as the US moves as well to create a region-wide defense platform, the so-called Middle East NATO,” Sean Yom, an associate professor at Temple University, pointed out in an interview with The Cradle.
“There is, however, one sticking point that will probably cause a difference: the Saudis continue to desire a strong US presence in the Gulf, one that can police Iran and intervene in a potential militarized conflict, whereas Biden clearly is continuing his predecessors’ anti-interventionist stance,” added Yom.
Nonetheless, many experts have doubts about an Arab NATO ever manifesting into a real alliance, and expect the initiative to remain merely conceptual. This assessment accounts for the opposition of some Arab states to an open military coordination with Israel, as some GCC states, like the Sultanate of Oman, do not want to join an alliance aimed at weakening or intimidating Tehran.
There are also logistical hurdles which would make it difficult for these state militaries to integrate in a NATO-like manner.
“Biden’s plan for a US-backed ‘Arab NATO’ of GCC states plus Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan seems as unlikely to succeed as Trump’s Middle East Strategic Alliance, which never got off the ground,” Ottaway says.
Virtue-signalling human rights
Although Biden’s administration has determined that the moral costs of this presidential trip do not outweigh the perceived benefits, the Khashoggi affair remains a delicate issue – though significantly less so now than in the immediate aftermath of the grisly murder in October 2018.
MbS wants the US government to drop the Khashoggi issue, but elements within Biden’s party maintain that any interaction between him and the crown prince would be “profoundly disturbing.” To placate more progressive politicians, high-profile media pundits, and human rights activists who criticize Biden for “legitimizing” MbS on this trip, the president will seek some human rights concessions, like those which his administration secured at the start of his presidency.
If Biden is successful on this front, he could return to the US claiming that his visit to the kingdom helped advance, rather than hinder, the cause of human rights. Such an achievement would help Biden save face and tell his base that he did not abandon certain principles or so-called ‘American values’ by meeting MbS in the Saudi kingdom.
“His campaign trail rhetoric, like all political campaign rhetoric, was never going to bear much resemblance to executive policy and official diplomacy,” cautioned Yom. “But I do think Biden will exit the meetings by claiming that he squarely put human rights concerns, and potentially even democratic awareness, onto the agenda for Riyadh.”
Yet, whether the Saudi leadership feels it is under sufficient pressure to release any political prisoners, or provide liberties to some recently released Saudis who are banned from traveling, remains to be seen.
From the perspective of the Saudi government, the US and other western governments are inappropriately virtue signaling when raising human rights concerns in the kingdom. The view from Riyadh is that these issues are internal issues that do not concern Washington or European capitals.
Saudi and other Arab officials will often point to US sins in Iraq or police brutality against African-Americans to highlight elements of hypocrisy on the part of US politicians lecturing the Saudi government on the human rights front.
MbS reportedly “shouting” at US national security adviser Jake Sullivan after the high-ranking official brought up the Khashoggi case underscores the effect of these discussions on the leaders of Saudi Arabia.
The grander geopolitical picture
Biden will visit Saudi Arabia amid a period of increasing east–west bifurcation and intensifying great power competition. Although neither China nor Russia is on the verge of replacing the US as security guarantor of Saudi Arabia or any GCC states, US influence in the Gulf has declined with Beijing and Moscow gaining greater clout at Washington’s expense.
Biden’s trip to Jeddah aims to reassert US influence in the Persian Gulf and attempt to prevent Riyadh and other Arab capitals from moving closer to the Chinese and Russians. An objective of Biden’s is to bring GCC states back into the geopolitical orbit of the west, while slowing down the growth of their partnerships with Beijing and Moscow.
“There were undeniable hiccups in the relationship last year, relating to halting support to the Yemen war, aggressive rhetoric against MbS, and more scrutiny on arms sales,” Yom explained.
“Fundamentally, none of these factors perturbed the great structural core of the US–Saudi alliance, built upon mutual perceptions of energy security, sovereign protections, and regional hegemony. But those hiccups were enough to make the decision-making circles in Riyadh a bit uncomfortable, enough at least to entertain Russian and Chinese overtures for military and energy cooperation.”
The White House and the entire US foreign policy establishment have grave concerns about Sino–Saudi ballistic missile cooperation and the extent to which the Chinese and Emiratis are making their defense and security relations more robust.
It is safe to say that while in Jeddah, team Biden will make it clear that the US will withhold future military assistance if GCC states move militarily closer to China. The extent to which such pressure has any impact on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s relationships with Beijing remains an open question.
Nonetheless, team Biden must understand that this visit will occur against the backdrop of serious tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has grown frustrated with many aspects of Washington’s agenda in the Biden era.
The Saudi government’s view is that Biden is an ’Obama 2.0’ – a perspective that is not unreasonable when mindful of how many Obama administration veterans, including Biden himself, are serving in the White House.
By moving closer to China and Russia, the Saudis are sending a message, loud and clear, to Washington that Riyadh has other options on the international stage as the world moves towards multipolarity with more Arab statesmen perceiving the US as a power that is withdrawing from West Asia.
Riyadh can exaggerate the extent to which the kingdom has grown closer to Beijing and Moscow to gain leverage over the US and secure more concessions from Washington. That is likely to continue, and Biden would be making a mistake in placating the Saudis in every instance to merely try to stop Riyadh from tilting closer to China and Russia.
Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia is showing itself to be increasingly confident and Biden’s visit to the kingdom will add to Riyadh’s sense of being emboldened, giving the Saudi leadership more reason to pursue its own interests in ways that sometimes align more closely with Beijing and Moscow’s foreign policy objectives than those of western powers.
Despite these geopolitical tensions, the Biden administration and Al-Saud rulers both value Washington and Riyadh’s decades-old partnership, and neither side wants to abandon it. Much anger and a significant trust deficit, however, have built up between these two countries.
Biden will not be leaving Saudi Arabia later this month with all these issues resolved. But the dialogue in Jeddah has the potential to begin a process of mending fences.