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Partner or pariah? Biden must make his mind up on Saudi

Murder and the Yemen war versus rising prices at the pump - the US president will have to use all his powers of diplomacy to get what he wants

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, in 2017 Official White House Photo
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, in 2017

The Middle East has historically represented tricky terrain for US presidents. Many have tried to avoid it but the region sucks them in. 

Joe Biden is the latest to discover the complexity of Arab relations. He will head out to Israel and Saudi Arabia on a trip that promises to be one of the most challenging diplomatic tours for years. 

When his predecessor Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia in 2017, it was an extraordinary jamboree, replete with arms sales and large contracts.

When the former president visited Israel they even named a settlement after him, and he returned the gesture in kind when he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem.

For good measure, Trump’s popularity soared when he ripped up the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, one that Biden has been attempting to resurrect. 

Visiting the US’s two closest allies in the region should be a walk in the park, especially for a president who has been a frequent visitor. 

But, today, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are friends with long lists of grievances.

They know Biden needs their support, not least when months away from mid-term elections.

The US president has his own menu of issues to raise with his hosts, ones where his Democrat base will largely expect him to be robust – like human rights. 

Biden is visiting two countries held responsible for the murder of two journalists: one of whom was a US citizen; the other a columnist for a leading US newspaper. In both cases, the issue of responsibility and accountability is far from resolved. 

Israeli forces are widely accused of murdering Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11. US pressure has led the Palestinian Authority to hand over the bullet for testing. A conclusive result – one way or another – will compel Biden to speak out. 

But if the Abu Akleh case is tricky, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 will be even tougher.

Many hold the Saudi crown prince responsible for ordering the hit team to kill the journalist. The US intelligence assessment that Biden released last year concluded that the assassination had to have the crown prince’s approval.

Yet Biden’s agenda requires him to get past these issues as swiftly as possible.

The domestic imperative is that the price at the pump in the US is over $5. He wants Gulf states to pump more oil to force the price down.

He also wants their support against Russia. He may also push for normalisation of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. None of this will be easy. 

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have differing perspectives to the US over Russia.

Israeli leaders have close relations with Russian President Putin who has granted the Israeli airforce the freedom to take out Iranian military assets in Syria. This could be denied them. Russian forces are on Israel’s borders.

Saudi Arabia does not wish to take sides and get sucked in – this is a view shared by most of its neighbours, not least the UAE. 

Also on the US agenda will be to seek a swift end to the Yemen war.

The trouble is that Biden, when running for president, accused Saudi Arabia of “murdering children” in Yemen, adding that he would treat Saudi as a “pariah.” 

He also froze weapons exports to Saudi Arabia last year and reversed Trump’s designation of the Houthis. Biden is having to change his tone. 

That there is a ceasefire in Yemen has improved the atmospherics. Saudi and Emirati leaders will demand US protection for Houthi missiles. 

All Biden’s interlocutors will seek tough action on Iran. None of them favour a renewed deal or are thrilled with the talks about to restart in Doha between the US and Iran. Iran already has enough highly enriched uranium to build a bomb. 

This will be realpolitik on steroids.

Biden may be relieved he can deal with the less hawkish new Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, rather than his two predecessors. He will want to cement links but at the same time limit Israeli plans for mega settlement projects and mass forced evictions of Palestinians. 

Biden will have to swallow his pride and engage the Saudi leadership.

At the NATO summit he did not sound enthusiastic when he stated, “I guess I will see the king and the crown prince.” He will have to decide whether Saudi is a pariah or partner. 

This trip is no tick-box exercise. Biden will have to demonstrate progress on issues the US electorate cares about.

What price is he willing to pay for this and just how high a price his allies demand are the questions that hang over the visit.

Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding

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