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Saudi Arabia Proves Too Big to Snub for a Desperate Biden

·7 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden promised to “reorient” the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, but the man he shunned over the kingdom’s human rights record may yet get to decide in which direction.

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With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upending energy markets, it became clear months ago that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was no longer someone the US president could afford to avoid as he seeks assistance to combat rocketing prices and isolate Vladimir Putin.

On Friday, Biden will touch down in the country he wanted to turn into a “pariah.” The visit follows months of shuttle diplomacy by key envoys aimed at repairing an alliance that’s the most strained in decades. But rather than a display of American influence, Biden’s arrival in Jeddah highlights the shift in dynamics as soaring energy costs hit the US economy while Saudi Arabia makes $1 billion a day from selling crude.

Prince Mohammed was vilified in the US and Europe following the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist and critic Jamal Khashoggi, and Biden’s aides have said human rights are on the agenda of his first Middle East trip.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post on July 9, Biden focused on security and said his administration had “reversed the blank-check policy we inherited” for Saudi Arabia. “From the start, my aim was to reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years,” he wrote.

At 79, Biden is more than twice the age of 36-year-old Prince Mohammed. Yet the relationship between the two men could now prove crucial to Biden’s political fortunes, however awkward. And the trouble is that Biden has a weak hand to play.

It took months of talks — and the prospect of a Biden photo op with the crown prince — to squeeze additional barrels out of OPEC and its allies at a meeting on June 2. But it was never going to be enough to make a difference at US gasoline pumps and Washington wants more.

Saudi officials say the most important element of the visit is the symbolism — to draw a line under the past and move on — and any wider agreement on security, energy and Russia will take more time.

One adviser to the government in Riyadh said King Salman and Prince Mohammed simply want the US to reaffirm its security commitments to the region. They’re worried Biden’s effort to revive the Iran nuclear accord will hand their rival an oil windfall to spend on militias, including the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have attacked Saudi oil facilities.

The expectation among observers is for another token increase in oil production, but nothing that will impact markets significantly. Gulf officials also said it’s unlikely that the trip paves the way for an imminent diplomatic normalization with Israel, though they said more incremental steps, including deeper security cooperation between the two states, could materialize.

“The Saudis want validation of their importance to the United States, and they’re going to get that,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Whatever image comes out with the president and the crown prince in the same frame is going to be distributed for years to come.”

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The US president will be treading a path worn by global leaders as the fallout from Russia’s war ricochets through their economies. Yet for Prince Mohammed, Biden is the real coup, a chance to cap his rehabilitation on the international stage after cementing power at home around his social and economic overhaul of the kingdom.

Pro-government editorials and social media influencers in Saudi Arabia have painted the Biden visit as a triumph for the autocratic royal known as MBS and the kingdom’s relevance in a world still reliant on fossil fuels. Some shared memes mocking the president and poked fun at his administration’s dissembling about whether he’ll meet the prince.

Opponents of MBS’s crackdown on dissent, meanwhile, cast Biden’s visit as a betrayal. Exiled Saudi activist Abdullah Alaoudh called it “a license for dictators everywhere to blackmail the United States.”

Where the old Saudi Arabia was cautious and accommodating to the US, Prince Mohammed has proved more assertive — critics would say reckless — in war and diplomacy, more open to ties with Russia and China, and more willing to stand up to the White House, demanding respect if not approval.

Recent American administrations have failed to recognize how Saudi Arabia’s political calculus has changed, said Yasmine Farouk, a non-resident scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“They think that they can treat today’s Saudi Arabia the same way that they treated the previous ones and still get what they want,” she said. “Today, you’re dealing with a country that doesn’t really feel it owes you anything.”

Indeed, the optics have changed for an alliance based on oil and security forged in the aftermath of World War II. It survived the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the hands of Saudis and was reinforced under Donald Trump.

Just days after taking the presidential oath, Biden announced the US planned to cut off arms sales for Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen and reverse the decision to designate the Iranian-backed Houthis as a terrorist organization.

Soon after, White House aides said Biden would speak directly with “counterpart” King Salman, while leaving discussions with the crown prince to cabinet officials and senior aides.

The effort, officials said, was intended both as a repudiation of Prince Mohammed for the Khashoggi killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and a symbolic break from the Trump administration. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, chatted regularly with MBS on WhatsApp, bypassing diplomatic protocol and securing a $2 billion Saudi investment after he left office.

Russia’s amassing of troops near the Ukraine border began to change that view. As US officials braced for the attack, Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s Middle East coordinator, and Amos Hochstein, the State Department’s senior adviser for global energy security, were sent to Riyadh to discuss energy concerns.

The pair were dispatched again after Russia launched its invasion in February and crude prices spiked, but the Saudis made little public effort to address the oil crisis. Talks intensified within the White House about the possibility of a rapprochement between Biden and the Saudi leadership, according to three people familiar with the matter. Aides also indicated publicly that if Prince Mohammed attended international forums on behalf of Saudi Arabia, Biden would not object to a meeting.

Attention then turned to an in-person liaison that could provide the crown prince with a presidential handshake. In late April, Biden accepted an invitation from Israel to visit the region, with an eye toward a possible stop in Saudi Arabia. By May, the crown prince’s younger brother, Khalid bin Salman, traveled to Washington and met with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Hochstein and other officials.

A plan coalesced around a Saudi-hosted summit of Arab allies that would allow Biden to maintain that he wasn’t specifically going for a meeting the Prince Mohammed. It wasn’t until OPEC+’s June decision to pump an extra 648,000 barrels per day that aides locked in the details, settling on an itinerary that ensured Israel — not Saudi Arabia — was Biden’s first stop.

The risk for Biden is that he comes back with little, while the reset is both an admission that his Saudi policy failed and a disappointment to many Democrats who want a principled stand on human rights and pivot toward clean energy. That’s ahead of November elections where the Democrats stand to lose control of Congress.

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