August 16, 2022

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Biden heads to Saudi Arabia for a welcome reset

Biden heads to Saudi Arabia for a welcome reset

United States President Joe Biden holds a press conference on the last day of the NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain, on June 30, 2022.

Jacob Borzicki | Norfoto | Getty Images

President Joe Biden heads to Saudi Arabia this week as part of his first trip to the Middle East as commander in chief.

It walks with a list of goals, including energy security, bringing the Saudis and Israel closer together, advancing a truce in Yemen, and creating a more cohesive regional front against Iran.

But it’s a controversial move for this president, and no one is really sure how much he will actually achieve.

The planned visit has drawn a lot of criticism, from both the right and the left, for being what some call ‘awkward’ dip And to show a clear reflection of the tough anti-kingdom rhetoric used by Biden during his candidacy and in the early months of his presidency.

Now, things are different. Gasoline in the United States is at the most expensive everRussia’s ongoing war in Ukraine has significantly narrowed global oil supplies, and Biden really wants Saudi Arabia and Israel to be friends. So will the trip look like an embarrassing apology, or a reset to two countries with common interests?

“I’m not going. I won’t shake his hand,” Rep. Adam Schiff (Democrat, California) He said in an interview in June, in response to a question about the president’s planned meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Then he referred to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, The administration attributed to the Crown Prince. The Saudi government has repeatedly rejected the accusations.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the G20 Leaders Summit via video conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on October 30, 2021.

Saudi Royal Court | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

While campaigning in 2019, Biden vowed to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” and, as president, has vocally criticized human rights abuses in the country. He also insisted on viewing Saudi Arabia’s King Salman as his counterpart, not the 36-year-old crown prince, who runs the kingdom’s day-to-day affairs.

In March, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly refused to take a call from BidenThe US leader appealed to the Gulf states to increase oil production after banning Russian oil imports.

In an early March interview with The AtlanticWhen asked if he thought Biden misunderstood him, the crown prince replied, “Simply put, I don’t care. It’s up to him to think about America’s interests.”

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Welcome reset

Biden appears to have gotten those interests ahead of what would have been a more idealized narrative.

On Saturday, the president published a newspaper An editorial in the Washington Post titled “Why I’m Going to Saudi Arabia”. In it, he said that “from the beginning, my goal has been to reorient — but not sever — relations with a country that has been a strategic partner for 80 years.” He stressed the importance of US-Saudi relations for stability in the region and for US interests.

Biden is hardly the first president to run for the “Human rights will be central to my foreign policy” platform, only to face in office the realities of the Middle East.

Hussein Ibish

Senior resident scholar, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the kingdom’s royal court, sees Biden’s visit as a tonic for damaged relations.

“I think the Biden administration’s mistake was that it conveyed its campaign rhetoric to the administration,” he told CNBC, “and it hit a wall of realism.”

He said the visit is “a reset. And I think it’s a welcome reset. Because the relationship is important to the kingdom too. They would like these clouds to pass.”

Al-Shihabi added, “I think by virtue of his visit to the Kingdom he puts that behind him, and this allows things to return to what they were with America in the past.”

Biden says human rights will remain high on his agenda. But many observers say this is unlikely, given other security and energy interests in focus.

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar on Al Arabiya, said the Gulf States Institute in Washington.

The Saudi State Department and the White House did not respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.

oil and israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of the signed agreements during their participation in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, and the normalization of relations between Israel and some Middle Eastern countries. Neighbors, in a strategic realignment of Middle Eastern countries against Iran, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, United States, September 15, 2020.

Tom Brenner | Reuters

But Biden has largely rejected that, stressing that Israel’s security is a top priority. He told reporters in June that the trip “is about national security for them – for the Israelis.” This may be an attempt to turn the narrative into a topic with broader support in Washington: Republicans and a majority of Democrats support Arab-Israeli normalization.

The fact that Biden will be flying directly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is a small sign of progress on this goal. The Biden administration has also been pushing for more intra-military action between Israel and the Arab states to form a unified US-led coalition that would create more leverage against Iran.

But any public participation is highly unlikely, as security cooperation between the kingdom and Israel will likely continue “behind the scenes” as it has for several years, according to Torbjorn Soltvedt, Middle East and North Africa analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.

What does Saudi Arabia want?

While critics have said the meeting will put the ball entirely in the Saudis’ court, there are some things the kingdom desperately wants from the United States – first and foremost, a strict guarantee of security.

“An enhanced air defense,” Al-Shihabi said. “Air defense is critical to the importance of the entire peninsula, the entire GCC, and I think this is where Biden can make the most difference. A more formal commitment to resources that would secure GCC airspace would be the big demand. .

An Aramco oil depot caught fire after a missile attack claimed by the Yemeni Houthis. The strike came on the eve of the F1 Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia at Jeddah’s Corniche circuit.

Peter J Fox | Getty Images

Biden angered the Saudis When withdrawing the American Patriot missile batteries and other advanced military systems from Saudi Arabia last year, even as the kingdom was under missile and missile attacks from Yemen’s Houthi rebels and other Iranian-backed groups.

‘Not likely to lead to a breakthrough’

US military personnel stand next to the M142 High Mobility Artillery Missile System (HIMARS) during Saudi Arabia’s first World Defense Exhibition, north of the capital, Riyadh, on March 6, 2022.

Fayez Noureddine | Afp | Getty Images

“Dedicating American lives to defending these Arab dictatorships is much more scandalous than an embarrassing presidential handshake with the Saudi crown prince,” Parsi said. “Biden will make good on his promises to bring troops home from the Middle East in one fell swoop, making Saudi Arabia pay the price and ending the war in Yemen.”

However, others argue that a strong relationship with the Saudi leadership, and specifically with the crown prince, is vital to maintaining US influence in the region – and the world.

“Great power competition with China is not possible by moving away from the Gulf region and hoping for the best,” said Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute. “On the contrary, it means continued engagement.”

“It’s a reasonable partnership because of the broad and shared interests involved, although in many cases the values ​​are not shared or reciprocal,” he added.