Tuesday February 20, 2024

Biden’s Saudi Arabia visit a ‘gamble’

Biden came to Saudi Arabia hoping to convince the OPEC heavyweight to boost oil production

July 18, 2022
Biden’s Saudi Arabia visit a ‘gamble’

JEDDAH: While the US media terms President Joe Biden’s Saudi Arabia trip a gamble, he and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took a step to mending their troubled relationship with a fist bump, but the US leader left the kingdom with few big successes and doubts as to whether the visit was worth it, reports British media.

Thorny optics overshadowed the Saudi leg as Biden avoided appearing to embrace a crown prince implicated by US intelligence in the brutal 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a charge Saudi authorities deny.

Biden said he confronted Prince Mohammed, known as MbS, over the killing. MbS remained unbowed, telling Biden the United States had also made mistakes Though Biden left the Middle East without securing an immediate pledge by Saudi Arabia to boost oil output or public support for US efforts for a regional security axis that would include Israel, the trip was not a wash

Biden’s fist bump with Prince Mohammed in front of the royal palace in Jeddah will serve as the defining image of the trip, but it was months in the making. White House officials were divided over rewarding the prince with a visit and agonized over how it would look.

In the end, they decided that keeping strategic ties with Saudi Arabia that have weathered 80 years was important for US interests and would help the two sides turn the page.

Riyadh took several important steps to pave a path for the visit, including backing a U.N.-brokered truce in the Yemen conflict, a big victory for Biden, who pulled U.S support for Saudi-led offensive operations. It also helped accelerate already approved boosts in oil production through OPEC+.

“The summit of the nine Arab leaders is a clear accomplishment as is the backing for the truce in Yemen. But these accomplishments have come at the cost of the fist bump,” said Bruce Riedel, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Biden came to Saudi Arabia hoping to convince the OPEC heavyweight to boost oil production, but the kingdom held firm on its strategy that it must operate within the framework of the OPEC+ alliance, which includes Russia, and not act unilaterally.

However, White House officials are confident their diplomatic efforts will help shape the conversation when OPEC+ members hold their next meeting.

“All eyes are on the August 3 OPEC+ meeting. If the Saudis and the UAE want to raise output, they will do it via OPEC+. But we have to keep in mind the demand picture is softening. I’m not sure these countries are convinced the market needs more crude supply,” said Ben Cahill, an energy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The trip saw a small warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel after Riyadh said it would open its airspace to all air carriers, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel.

There was also a US -brokered deal between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia under which a small US -led international peacekeeping contingent would quit the strategic island of Tiran, control of which was ceded to Riyadh by Cairo in 2017.

The United States and Israel hope those moves and the summit could help build momentum toward Israel’s further integration into the region, including with Saudi Arabia

But the Saudi foreign minister poured cold water over any imminent normalization with Israel, saying this was not a precursor to further steps. He said Riyadh was not part of any discussions on a Gulf-Israeli defense alliance to counter Iran.

On Thursday, the US and Israel signed a joint pledge on Thursday to deny nuclear arms to Iran, a show of unity by allies long divided over diplomacy with Tehran. The declaration was part of Biden’s efforts to rally regional allies around US efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear pact with Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE want regional concerns over Iran’s missile program and regional proxies to be addressed. According to Bloomberg, in the balmy backyard of the Israeli president’s residence this week, President Joe Biden was reminded of “a great enthusiasm” for the Jewish state when he first came as a US senator 50 years ago. The next day, at his first meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, no one would believe Biden was enthusiastic.

The awkward encounter – embodied by a grudging fist-bump with a leader he had hoped to marginalize after the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi – underscored his calculus as a president desperate to bring home relief from high gasoline prices.

For the crown prince, the meeting delivered the stamp of US legitimacy. His officials worked to seize the opportunity to dispense with blame for Khashoggi’s murder and convey the notion that Saudi Arabia holds the key to lower fuel prices.

The visit was a gamble by Biden, who returns to Washington in precarious political standing. His legislative agenda is mired down by his own party, with midterm elections just months away and allies increasingly frustrated that his White House hasn’t achieved many of its aims.

The Saudi wager prompted howls of hypocrisy from activists and allies at home and in the Gulf states whom Biden needs to address energy shortages. The payoff may be months away — if it comes at all.

The crown prince defended the kingdom’s handling of the incident and tossed back actions by the US and Israel, including the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and recent killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist.

Biden called for a “full and transparent accounting” of her killing, which the State Department said was likely an accidental shooting by Israeli Defense Forces, but has not sought to punish Israel.

“That’s the type of conversation and communication we are used to between the kingdom and the United States of America — clear, candid, direct, because that’s the way that we move forward,” said Princess Reema bint Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the US.

The intention for the Saudis was to seek a “more solid, institutionalized form of security commitments,” said Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

At a hastily arranged parallel news conference, Biden appeared frustrated by the criticism of his efforts, dismissing one question as “silly” and laughing when another noted the attacks on his approach. He pleaded with skeptics for patience on the trip’s dividends.

“The bottom line is: This trip is about once again positioning America in this region for the future,” Biden said. “We are not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill. And we’re getting results.”

Another British media outlet reported the US president was still insisting his visit to Saudi Arabia had nothing to do with the kingdom’s day-to-day leader. “I didn’t come here to meet with the crown prince,” Biden said, pointing to his agenda, which included a summit with other Arab leaders. According to Israeli media, US President Joe Biden, before setting foot in Saudi Arabia, knew there would be trouble.

His visit to Saudi Arabia was occasionally uncomfortable but, in Biden’s view, ultimately necessary. Although he’s been focused on confronting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and limiting China’s expanding influence in Asia, those goals become far more difficult without the partnerships that he was tending to here.

The summit, where Biden announced $1 billion in US funding to alleviate hunger in the region, was the final destination on Biden’s four-day trip, which included stops in Israel and the West Bank.

On oil, the Israeli media said Biden wants to see when existing production quotas among OPEC+ member countries, which include Russia, expire in September. His travels were shadowed by a steady stream of grim news from Washington, where Democratic plans to address climate change floundered on Capitol Hill and there was fresh evidence that inflation had reached historic levels.