The US President finds himself in an awkward position trying to take the Arab state to court over oil while holding it accountable for human rights abuses
It’s hard enough to make progress on an issue in the Middle East. Joe Biden has several political goals when he flies to the region on Wednesday – and worse, all goals appear contradictory.
Biden, by his own rhetoric, must stand up for the region’s struggling human rights while smearing butter on the leaders responsible for the repression. And while smoothing ties with Israel and the Gulf states, he will want to avoid anything that will up the ante with their sworn enemy Iran and reduce the already slim chances of a renewed deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The US President will need all declared diplomatic skills – and avoid the gaffes for which he is also known.
The most delicate operation will be repairing ties with Saudi Arabia, a regime he has publicly despised since the 2018 assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi authorities blamed a “rogue” team of agents for the murder at their consulate in Istanbul. However, US intelligence has concluded that the de facto ruler of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MbS) is the target of Khashoggi’s critical articles Wall Street JournalShe ordered the hit.
As a presidential candidate, Biden vowed to get the Saudis to “pay the price and make them the pariahs they are.” In office, Biden tore up the convention by explicitly never speaking to Bin Salman.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. US needs big oil producers to ramp up supplies to mitigate the oil shock from the invasion of Ukraine.
Biden’s visit to the kingdom over the weekend, where he will also attend a summit of Arab leaders, appears to signal the end of Saudi Arabia’s “pariah” status. Whether he will meet MbS in person is not yet entirely clear from US officials. A senior Saudi journalist told IHowever, he was confident the couple would meet in person on the first day of Biden’s visit to the kingdom, along with MbS’ ailing father King Salman.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are said to be the only two countries in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) with spare capacity to boost global supplies. However, it remains unclear whether Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could provide enough oil to depress prices even if they were inclined to do so.
However, both Gulf states will no doubt urge Biden to resume arms sales, which they can use to continue their barbaric war in Yemen despite a ceasefire there for now. No wonder human rights groups – and some senior Democrats – have hinted that renewed ties with Riyadh would have a sulphurous aftertaste.
Biden could reiterate America’s call for Riyadh to review “political prisoner” cases and lift travel bans on women’s rights activists. But that looks like paying lip service to civil rights.
The US President could promote further relations between the Gulf States and Israel. But detente is already underway between Israel and some of its key neighbors, based largely on mutual fear and loathing of Iran.
A bigger problem is that Israel and Saudi Arabia are resisting Western efforts to renew the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with world powers, which eased sanctions on Tehran in exchange for a curb on Iran’s nuclear program. Both countries say the original nuclear deal did nothing to stem the regional spread of Iran’s influence or its conventional missile program.
Mr. Biden will use his stopover in Israel to reassure the Jewish state that the US will continue to back Israel as it continues to seek a new security deal with Tehran.
Talks in Vienna over a revised nuclear deal are currently stalled, although the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
Saudi officials say normalizing ties with Israel pending the establishment of a Palestinian state is out of the question. However, the two-state solution was thwarted by the ever-growing number of illegal Israeli settlements. But leading Saudis have become increasingly critical of the Palestinian leadership, and some Saudi commentators have voiced support for official ties with Israel just over the past week. Business ties and a shared hatred of Iran will ensure that the Palestinians – deserted by their Arab “supporters” – remain the losers in the murky world of Middle East politics.