Biden tries to revive Saudi alliance amid Ukraine war – but will MbS reciprocate?

Biden tries to revive Saudi alliance amid Ukraine war – but will MbS reciprocate?

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Joe Biden heads to Saudi Arabia for a two-day visit on Friday, as the war in Ukraine and the Middle East’s vexed geopolitics have prompted the US president to reverse course after having vowed to make the Wahhabist monarchy a “pariah” because of the 2018 killing of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The US president illustrated the old foreign policy dilemma of realpolitik versus promoting human rights by writing an opinion piece for The Washington Post ahead of his trip: Saudi Arabia’s “energy resources are vital for mitigating the impact on global supplies of Russia’s war in Ukraine. And a region that’s coming together through diplomacy and cooperation – rather than coming apart through conflict – is less likely to give rise to violent extremism,” Biden wrote.

But he was also at pains to mollify sceptics within the Democratic Party coalition: “I know that there are many who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia. My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad.”

Riyadh has been Washington’s close ally ever since King Ibn Saud and Franklin D. Roosevelt made their pact on board the USS Quincy as World War II was nearing its end in 1945. Over the past three decades, every US president has visited Saudi Arabia. Barack Obama went there most frequently, making four visits during his time in the White House.

At the time, the killing of dissident Saudi journalist, Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 looked like a turning point. Khashoggi’s murder – not to mention Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for ties with Riyadh – made Saudi Arabia anathema to many US Democrats.

Biden had promised as a 2020 presidential candidate to make Saudi a “pariah” if elected. After entering the White House, he announced an end to US support for Saudi’s engagement in the war in Yemen, removed the Houthis from the US terrorist group blacklist, and declassified a US intelligence report concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) had “approved” the operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

“Many Democrats are saying Biden is contradicting himself while Republicans are saying he’s doing the same thing as Trump after excoriating him for it, so the president was trying to respond pre-emptively to all the criticism,” said David Rigoulet-Roze, a Middle East specialist at the IRIS think-tank in Paris.

‘Reality has caught up with Biden’

Many analysts have argued Biden’s earlier talk of democracies versus autocracies was impractical, especially since China and Russia are threatening US hegemony. “The west is locked in a struggle against two specific autocracies. Not, as some would have it, against ‘autocracy’. The challenge from Russia and China (US Republicans would name Iran as a third) is daunting enough without volunteering for a showdown with a complete mode of government,” wrote Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh.

The challenge from Russia is amplifying Biden’s problems at home. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has intensified already soaring inflation by driving up oil prices. Amid this cost of living crisis, Biden is bracing for November’s midterms with an even worse approval rating than Trump’s at the same stage in his mandate.

Riyadh has deepened ties with Moscow over recent years, with the two co-ordinating oil output as part of the OPEC+ group of major oil-producing countries. Saudi and Russian interests often align, as both economies benefit from high oil prices.

So, in theory, reviving the Saudi-American friendship offers Biden a chance to shore up his weak position at home and dent Russia’s interests by persuading Riyadh to ramp up oil production and thus lower its price.

“Reality has caught up with Biden when it comes to defending US geopolitical and strategic interests,” Rigoulet-Roze said. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine really changed things by sending oil prices sky-high – making Saudi Arabia a very important partner again, in a way Biden cannot ignore.”

Saudi Arabia did seem to diminish in importance as a US partner during the last decade. The shale revolution made the US a major oil and gas producer once more, reducing Saudi’s salience as a source of fossil fuels. This further incentivised US President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia’s arch-nemesis Iran, even if Trump ripped up the deal three years later.

Shared antipathy towards Iran – and the Iran deal – brought the Gulf’s Sunni states closer to Israel during that period. Washington is keen to encourage these growing ties between US allies previously at odds. Biden described his unprecedented direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah as a “symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalisation between Israel and the Arab world” in his Washington Post article.

“The Americans are starting to understand that they probably won’t be able to revive the nuclear deal with Iran,” Rigoulet-Roze noted. “So they’re now trying to contain Iran by different means – by setting up a regional defence apparatus tying together Israel and the Arab states, which needs to include Saudi Arabia.”

‘Thinly veiled Saudi threat’

But while Biden seems keen to rejuvenate the old Saudi-American partnership, it remains to be seen whether the feeling is mutual. While Saudi Arabia seems to regard its burgeoning ties with Israel as serving its own interests amid worries about Iran, analysts doubt Riyadh will or even can do much to boost oil output.

Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron was revealed to have told Biden at the G7 summit in June that Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed informed him that the Saudis can only ramp up oil production a “little more” amid capacity constraints.

And the destination of Saudi oil has changed a lot since the heyday of the pact between Riyadh and Washington. The US diminished as a market for Saudi oil thanks to the fracking boom – but Saudi Arabia has now been China’s biggest crude supplier for three years running.

It looks like Riyadh sees this as a card to play as Washington reaches out. “MbS hinted earlier this year that Saudi Arabia might denominate its oil exports to China in yuan instead of dollars – which would be a bombshell, seeing as most oil transactions are conducted in petro-dallars,” Rigoulet-Roze pointed out. “It would mark a colossal shift as far as US prestige and power is concerned. There was nothing innocuous about this thinly veiled Saudi threat and Washington heard it loud and clear.”

So it is unsurprising that Biden highlighted the need to “put ourselves in the best possible position to out-compete China” in his Washington Post piece. The US has to “engage directly” with countries that can have an “impact” on such matters, he emphasised.

Realpolitik has thus triumphed as far as Biden is concerned, upgrading Saudi Arabia from “pariah” to indispensable partner within a matter of months – although whether Riyadh will switch back to the old alliance with such alacrity is another question.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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