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Biden’s Saudi visit is a test of pragmatism over populism

US president Joe Biden will need to tread a fine line if he is to get what he wants from the tour Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
US president Joe Biden will need to tread a fine line if he is to get what he wants from the tour

Ever since the White House announced in June that US President Joe Biden would be embarking on a trip to the Middle East – the first of his presidency – the possible motives behind it have been the subject of keen debate. 

Slated to take place from July 13-16 the trip has also been the source of considerable controversy given that the final stopover will be in Saudi Arabia where Biden will participate for two days in the GCC+3 annual summit. 

Having pledged during a presidential campaign debate in 2019 to turn Saudi Arabia into “the pariah that they are”, Biden’s words will ring hollow to many when he touches down in Jeddah next week and images of him shaking hands with the de facto ruler, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – aka MbS – are no doubt beamed around the world. 

During the debate Biden claimed that MbS had orchestrated the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi who had become one of the most outspoken critics of the Saudi regime. MbS has denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s death but did acknowledge in 2019 that it “happened under my watch”.

As one of the staunchest critics of the kingdom’s human rights record, Biden has also previously said that Saudi Arabia’s government has “no redeeming social value” and largely pursued a policy of disengagement. 

So why the about turn? 

Biden isn’t the first world leader to break a campaign pledge but it has taken a series of fairly seismic events for him to change course.  

The Covid pandemic has not been kind to his government’s fiscal budgets but it is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February this year – dramatically altering both the economic and geopolitical global landscape – that has led to a reappraisal of who constitutes a strategic partner. 

The US is currently battling to tame runaway consumer price inflation which hit a 40-year high in May, driven by the spike in both food and energy prices since the onset of the war. 

With the price of crude hovering at around $110 per barrel, US national average prices for regular gasoline stood at $4.86 as of June 30, nearly a 56 percent increase year-on-year.

New analysis from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecasts that the US economy will grow by an anaemic 1.6 percent in 2023. 

Not the sort of numbers a US president wants with mid-term elections looming in November. 

Saudi Arabia's Shaybah oilfield in the Rub' al-Khali desertReuters/Ali Jarekji
Saudi Arabia’s Shaybah oilfield in the Rub’ al-Khali desert

Motive 1: Oil

Saudi Arabia is the US’s third highest oil supplier, dispensing half a million barrels per day to the States. This gives MbS an ace card – one he hasn’t been shy to use.

For months the requests from the US for Saudi to pump more in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine went unheeded in Riyadh.

Then in early June Saudi Arabia and other OPEC+ states agreed to bring forward planned oil output rises to July-August from July-September to help offset Russian output losses and bring down prices. 

On June 2 White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre publicly credited the Saudis for the decision by tweeting: “We recognise the role of Saudi Arabia as the chair of OPEC+ and its largest producer in achieving this consensus amongst the group members.” 

Less than a fortnight later, on June 14, Biden confirmed that he will visit Saudi Arabia in mid-July for talks with its leaders as part of his first trip to the Middle East in his role as president. 

The US is now keen for Saudi and fellow Gulf state UAE to deploy their remaining spare oil capacity, a decision that may hinge on Biden’s visit.

In the latest round of OPEC+ talks which concluded on July 1, the 23-nation group did not announce any further increases. They will meet again on August 3.  

“OPEC+ has of course accelerated its production increases but this will have only a marginal impact,” Robin Mills, CEO of Dubai-based independent consultancy Qamar Energy, said. 

“Getting Saudi to raise oil output does appear to be the main goal of Biden’s visit, along possibly with getting reluctant Saudi buy-in on any US deal with Iran.

“Saudi has made a fairly cosmetic gesture and I would expect them to stick with moderate increases, at best, going forward.” 

Joe Biden last travelled to Israel in 2016 when he was US vice president and met with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This trip will be crucial to cementing relations between the countriesCreative Commons
Joe Biden last visited Israel in 2016 when he was US vice president and met with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This trip will be crucial to cementing relations between the countries

Motive 2: Israel

Another area in which the US administration is expected to exert its influence during the visit is with trying to broker closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel as it seeks to ease Palestinian tensions. Biden will visit both Israel and the occupied West Bank. 

Rumours have been circulating in Washington for months that Biden is seeking to expand the Abraham Accords – the US-brokered agreements – which were signed in September 2020 between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain with the aim of normalising diplomatic relations. Morocco and Sudan joined later.

Speaking during a press conference on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Spain held on June 30, Biden stated that one of the purposes of his upcoming trip to the Middle East is to “deepen Israel’s integration in the region,” before adding: “I think we’re going to be able to do [that], which is good – good for peace and good for Israeli security.” 

Responding to this, Lawrence Haas, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, told AGBI: “I would expect Biden to nudge Saudi leaders to move from their increasingly close, though behind the scenes, cooperation with Israel on an array of matters to an official and public normalisation of relations, which would really cement Israel’s place in the region and prove perhaps the biggest sea-change in Arab-Israeli relations.

“I don’t think that the issue is whether Riyadh joins the Abraham Accords in particular. The issue is Saudi-Israeli normalisation, however the two nations get there.”  

Indeed, some political analysts are circumspect about Biden’s chances of success. 

“There is a very low likelihood that Riyadh will join the Abraham Accords,” said Dr Neil Quilliam, associate fellow of the MENA Programme at Chatham House.

“Even if Riyadh did wish to normalise with Israel this time around, it is unlikely to do so as part of the Abraham Accords.

“As the regional heavyweight, Saudi Arabia would want an agreement reached on its terms and outside of the AA framework.”  

A number of new generation Iranian centrifuges are seen on display during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day last yearReuters
A number of new generation Iranian centrifuges are seen on display during Iran’s National Nuclear Energy Day last year

Motive 3: Iran

While the US would ideally like the Saudis to become a signatory to the Accords, ultimately its key concern is containing Iran.

On June 9, US lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced legislation aimed at bolstering defence cooperation between Israel and several Arab states in order to thwart aerial threats from Iran.

Democratic Congressman Brad Schneider, who introduced the bill in the House of Representatives, said: “Iran is on the one-yard line in their pursuit of a nuclear weapon and is threatening our allies in the region in numerous other ways.” 

The bill, known as the “DEFEND Act of 2022”, would require the Pentagon to submit a strategy for an integrated air and missile defence system among several Middle Eastern countries within 180 days.

Countries named in the bill include Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, as well as the GCC states.  

The international community is increasingly concerned that Iran is acquiring the capability to build a nuclear bomb.

Indirect talks between the US and Iran to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal – the landmark agreement brokered by the Obama administration that provided Iran with sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program – ended in Doha on June 29 without any breakthroughs, leading to growing speculation that it is now likely to be abandoned.

Under the Trump administration, the United States pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. In 2019, Tehran resumed advancing its nuclear program, allegedly enriching uranium beyond permitted thresholds.

“The US and EU will continue in its efforts to revive the JCPOA but to no avail. The JCPOA is over,” Quilliam said. 

“The strategy the United States is setting up is one in which Iran will be pushed further into the cold with or without the JCPOA,” added Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

“In that sense, it is increasingly not a continuation of Obama’s JCPOA that Biden is pursuing.” 

During his visit to Jeddah, Biden is reportedly planning to offer Saudi and the UAE a defence pact.

While there are no clear details as to what the pact would comprise, according to reports in the media Riyadh is looking for assurances that the US will retain a strong military presence in the region to help it counter threats from Iran, as well as wanting the US to support its ongoing war in Yemen. 

Vladimir Putin, the Russian presidentReuters/Dmitry Azarov
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president

Motive 4: Russia and China

For its part, the US will be seeking assurances from Saudi Arabia and the UAE that they will align with its strategy to weaken both Russia and China. 

On this point, some political analysts think that the Gulf countries will give preference to the US. 

“Saudi Arabia and the UAE consider the US to be their primary security partner and will continue to do so for a long time to come, even though there will be further wobbles in the relationship,” Quilliam said. 

“As such, they will prioritise the US relationship over relations with Moscow and Beijing, but that will not preclude them from furthering economic interests, especially with China.

“Where Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seek further security reassurances Washington will, in turn, require iron-clad commitments that new defence technologies and capabilities will not end up in the hands of Russia or China.”  

But there is no doubt that Russia poses the greatest threat to the global world order today, and in his visit to the Middle East Biden will be calling on Riyadh to abandon its oil pact with Moscow so as to cut off its source of funding for the Ukraine war. 

“Most certainly, the war in Ukraine and recent revisionist, threatening Russian behaviour on the world stage has created a new imperative for the Biden administration: the economic isolation and successful curbing of Russian imperial interests in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and the international community at large,” Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute for Policy and Strategy, said.

“This new priority has – for the time being – trumped some of the administration’s existing policies and stances in the Middle East as the US seeks to build support for Ukraine and disrupting Russian momentum.” 

In dragging its heels on increasing oil output, OPEC+ kingpin Saudi is providing sanctions-addled Russia with an economic lifeline.

For this reason Biden believes that MbS is the key to turning the tide – and ultimately winning the war – against Russia. 

For all his talk of turning Saudi into a “pariah”, the US president’s visit to the kingdom is an acknowledgement that MbS can serve as a valuable partner in an increasingly destabilised world. 

“The Biden administration’s policy towards Saudi Arabia has been tempered by realism.

“His idealism has been shaped into pragmatism and the need to deal with a leader who will remain in power for a long time to come,” Quilliam said.

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