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Security is what MbS wants most of all from Washington

Mohammed bin Salman with the then US defense secretary James Mattis in 2018 Kathryn E Holm
Mohammed bin Salman with the then US defense secretary James Mattis in 2018

As the architect of Saudi Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman quickly won plaudits the world over as a great moderniser and the face of reform in the kingdom. 

But the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 complicated matters.

Shunned by many leaders – both political and business – MbS has struggled to reprise the global popularity he once enjoyed. 

And no world leader has been a more vocal critic than US President Joe Biden.

Traditionally strong ties between Riyadh and Washington were shaken when, shortly after taking office in February 2021, Biden released a US intelligence report that concluded that MbS approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi. 

Earlier that month Biden had announced that he was ending US support for offensive operations led by Saudi Arabia against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen.

So far, Biden has refused to either meet or speak with MbS directly, saying that his 86-year-old father, King Salman, is his counterpart, even though the former is the de facto ruler.  

The strain this has placed on the relationship has been played out on the world stage with MbS declaring in an interview with US magazine The Atlantic on March 3: “Simply, I do not care,” when he was asked whether Biden misunderstood things about him. 

Tellingly, MbS also stressed in the same interview that it was Riyadh’s aim to maintain strong ties with Washington: “We have a long, historic relationship with the US,” he said. “For us in Saudi Arabia, our aim is to keep it and to strengthen it.” 

The latter remark was important for it showed that MbS is thinking about the long game.

In spite of claiming that he does not care if Biden has misunderstood him, MbS knows that the US president’s impending visit – scheduled at the tail end of a July 13-16 trip to the Middle East – is a massive international PR coup that will do wonders in helping to rehabilitate his image.  

Consensus among political analysts is that were it not for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which has sent global energy prices skyrocketing, Biden would not be making the trip to Riyadh. 

But nor will MbS be welcoming Biden with open arms.

According to widespread reports, the Saudis have made it clear to the White House that any coordination over oil output increases can only result from some of their interests being advanced too, most notably with regards to future cooperation on regional security. 

A missile is launched during a joint exercise called the "Great Prophet 17" in the southwest of IranReuters
A missile is launched during a joint exercise called the “Great Prophet 17” in Iran’s southwest

Motive 1: Iran

“I do think the Saudis have clarified that the Biden administration will need to make concessions,” Courtney Freer, a Fellow in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at Emory University, told AGBI. 

“Indeed, Biden’s visit to the country after he publicly dubbed it a pariah during the presidential campaign is a concession in and of itself.

“I could see some potential concessions related to Yemen and Iran – potentially to progress towards a regional security arrangement and fewer conditions on military sales and their partnership on the basis of human rights concerns.” 

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

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 US support for its ongoing war in Yemen.

While the scope of the pact is not yet clear, the US has already begun efforts to establish an integrated air and missile defence system in the Middle East. 

The defence system initiative was introduced as a bill in the House of Representatives on June 9 with the aim of bolstering defence cooperation between Israel and several Arab countries, including the GCC states, in order to thwart aerial threats from Iran.

The bill, known as the “DEFEND Act of 2022”, will require the Pentagon to submit a strategy for the defence system within 180 days. 

Saudi Arabia and fellow Sunni Arab nations are growing increasingly worried about intensifying security threats posed by Iran’s continued uranium enrichment, expanded ballistic missile capacity and regional expansionism. 

At the end of June, MbS concluded a regional tour taking in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey – his first official foreign trip in more than three years – as part of efforts to assert that it is a key regional player. 

“It is no coincidence that we are seeing resurged Saudi Arabian-led engagement with existing and potential security partners in the region as talks over the Iran nuclear deal are on the rocks,” Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute for Policy and Strategy, said. 

“These discussions and rapprochement with the US and new partners like Turkey are signs that Riyadh wants to begin constructing an alternative security mechanism that can efficiently counter aggression from Iran and Iran-aligned proxies in the region.” 

In particular, MbS will be looking for the US to show greater solidarity in helping it defend itself against Houthi aggression. 

“I believe there has been for a few years now a perception among the Gulf states about American withdrawal from the region, especially when it comes to security concerns,” Freer said. 

“Biden’s sending the USS Cole and fighter jets to the UAE after the latest Houthi missile attacks on it was one way of attempting to allay such fears, and this meeting may lead to further progress in this field.”

Saudi Arabia is committed to becoming a greener countryReuters/Ahmed Yosri
Saudi Arabia is committed to becoming a greener country

Motive 2: Green hydrogen

Most likely, Biden is counting on increased US defence support to Saudi to strengthen his hand in asking MbS to produce more oil so as to ease the global energy crisis.

Washington wants the oil producing alliance OPEC+ to commit to increased output and is looking to both Saudi and the UAE, who it is believed both have spare capacity, to help tame the current $110 per barrel oil price. 

“The most immediate concern is to convince Riyadh to increase Saudi oil production, both in hopes of lowering oil prices that are hurting US consumers and, in that spirit, giving US voters a reason to smile before mid-term congressional elections later this year,” Lawrence Haas, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, said.

“Whether Riyadh will agree to increase production and whether that would have a significant impact on global oil prices, however, remain open questions.” 

However, some industry experts note that while Saudi’s output may rise we shouldn’t expect a big burst of production from the kingdom later this year.

Rather, Riyadh Is more likely to stick to the planned OPEC+ timetable and only increase output after that if Russian production drops significantly. 

“I believe Saudi does have the spare capacity, but is likely to deploy it only very cautiously unless there is a major supply disruption,” Robin Mills, CEO of Dubai-based independent consultancy Qamar Energy, said.

“The constraint on world refining capacity also limits how much effect greater crude supply has on pump prices.” 

During an interview with CNN on June 19, however, the White House’s energy secretary Jennifer Granholm signalled that the scope of energy discussions are expected to extend beyond oil, noting that there was going to be a “series of meetings around energy overall” and that the Saudis are very interested in developing an expertise around clean hydrogen production. 

The kingdom has grand ambitions to become the globe’s number one producer of green hydrogen; it is aiming to produce around four million tonnes of the gas by 2030 as part of MbS’s Vision 2030 blueprint. 

Saudi Arabia will likely be looking to draw on US technical expertise in the renewable energy sphere, as well as financial investment.

In October last year the kingdom unveiled plans to lure more than $100 billion of foreign direct investment (FDI) a year by 2030. 

“One of the impediments to investor sentiment has been the open hostility from Washington despite Biden refusing to impose sanctions over the murder of Khashoggi,” noted Sami Hamdi, managing director of the International Interest, a global risk and intelligence company. 

“Biden’s visit will be seen as a genuine reset in relations with the Saudi crown prince and an affirmation of the enduring importance of the kingdom, and will likely spur greater interest and ease concerns among prospective investors who have already demonstrated enthusiasm for the lucrative new projects being touted.” 

Xi Jinping, China's presidentReuters/Selim Chtayti
Xi Jinping, China’s president

Motive 3: Foreign direct investment

Freer added that greater US FDI into Saudi Arabia could also have broader geostrategic implications.

“The US visit certainly could make it easier for the kingdom to attract FDI from the US in particular as it hopes to attract Saudi Arabia back into its sphere of influence and away from states like China and Russia.” 

Often portrayed as the great power struggle of the century, the US is determined to fend off growing Russian aggression and Chinese expansionism and will be looking to secure reassurances from Riyadh that it will align with US strategy on this. 

“Certainly, Biden would love Saudi Arabia and the UAE to be four-square with him on confronting Russia forcefully over Ukraine and confronting China forcefully over its expansionism in the Pacific and beyond,” Haas said. 

“Riyadh, however, is hedging its bets, both because it doesn’t want to be too dependent on Washington and because it’s leery due to Biden’s earlier talk of making Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ over its human rights record.” 

These ties look likely to be a source of friction in US-Saudi relations as Riyadh looks to achieve a delicate balancing act. 

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