June 21, 2022
When Joe Biden campaigned for presidential elections and promised to make Saudia – especially if the kingdom continues to be ruled by the crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) – a ‘pariah’ state, many political pundits in the US believed his rhetoric unlikely to change during the duration of his “democratic” presidency. For over a year, the Biden administration – specifically, Joe Biden himself – has maintained a calculated distance from MBS. Joe Biden even released the CIA report that concluded MBS’ direct involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Ever since then, relations between the US and Saudia have remained strained with no direct contact between Biden and MBS.
But the global geopolitical context has changed in the past few months. With the US push to expand NATO to include Ukraine triggering a war in Europe, a global energy crisis has emerged hurting the US/Europe directly. The US, for quite some time, has been trying [unsuccessfully] to convince the Saudis to increase oil production to reduce global oil prices and, thus, hurt the Russian economy and its ability to win. Washington’s efforts have not borne fruit, as the Saudis have repeatedly refused US requests to increase oil production. A key reason for this refusal is the current state of US-Saudia ties, upended by Biden’s efforts to “change” Saudia. But Biden is now willing to discard his “democratic” agenda and ready to court MBS, “the murderer.” This has become the key reason for Biden’s travel to Saudi Arabia in late June and meet MBS himself.
This is nothing short of a major political and diplomatic victory for MBS, who once faced a direct threat of a US-sponsored move to displace him as the crown prince. But the White House is now changing its policy to appease, by acknowledging MBS as the “rightful” ruler of the kingdom, the crown prince to convince him to break the OPEC Plus agreement that involves Russia. Secondly, the Israelis, too, have shown a lot of interest in normalising ties between Washington and Riyadh to build a large coalition against Iran in the region.
On May 26, two US officials visited Saudi Arabia to discuss, according to the White House, “Iran’s destabilizing activities, ensuring stable global energy supplies and other regional issues.”
This is a significant turnaround of events from Joe Biden deciding to end US support for the Saudi war in Yemen to seeking Saudi support for the US’ expansionist war on Russia. The Biden administration in turn seems prepared to revive its ties with Riyadh in ways to resuscitate the traditional ‘security-for-oil-relationship’ i.e., the US guaranteeing Saudi security [against Iran] and Riyadh, using its influence in the OPEC, maintaining stable oil prices.
While the US, too, has been impacted by the increasing oil prices, it produces enough oil on its own. Therefore, a crucial reason why the Biden administration has been forced to reproach Saudia is the impact that the global energy prices have left on Europe. With most of Europe traditionally relying on Russian oil supplies, the Russia-Ukraine war has particularly impacted the European economy. If the European states continue to face an energy/economic backlash, it will become increasingly difficult for them to continue to support the US push against Russia in Ukraine and/or expand NATO to maintain its own hegemony.
To avoid this, and to address European concerns, the Joe Biden administration has now decided to bring the Saudis in to increase daily oil production and, thus, bring energy prices down to help the European states sustain survive the crisis and increase their efforts against Russia. With energy prices down and the economy under control, the US can continue to use European support against Russia. This has become most evident in Europe’s most recent decision to cut, in phases, their oil supplies from Russia by the end of the year and get oil from somewhere else i.e., Saudia.
But will the Saudis oblige? Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s latest visit to Saudia shows that the Saudis are neither too ready nor too willing to just follow the US in its footsteps vis-à-vis Russia. Lavrov and his Saudi counterpart “noted the stabilizing effect that tight coordination between Russia and Saudi Arabia in this strategically important area has on the global hydrocarbon market.”
Saudi emphasis on the “stabilizing” impact underscores the kingdom’s position that it does not see increasing oil prices as a big problem. Secondly, the Saudis are careful to engage with the Biden administration, knowing fully that Biden’s rapprochement could very well be temporary, with support fizzling out once the Russia-Ukraine conflict ends. This meeting – and the commitments announced – also fly directly in the face of what some reports in the western mainstream media called a Middle Eastern push to cut-off Russia from OPEC.
In fact, the Saudi Foreign Minister said that the Kingdom is ready to play its role in bringing a “political solution” to the ongoing crisis. Therefore, the possibility of Joe Biden convincing to take a stand against Russia remains very slim.
The prospects of offering “security” to the Saudis against Iran in exchange for high oil production are further compromised by the fact that negotiations between Iran and Saudia – especially, in the wake of a ceasefire in Yemen – have produced some fruitful results. Thanks to Biden’s politics of alienating the Saudis, the latter has found a way to deal with its regional problems more directly and without confrontation. More importantly, any Saudi deal with Iran would also involve Russia as a possible guarantor or balancer between the two rivals. Maintaining ties with Russia, therefore, makes much more sense to MBS/Saudia than it did until Biden’s victory.
Therefore, when Biden visits Saudi Arabia, he will find a country much different in its foreign policy outlook than it was until the Trump era. Biden’s challenge will be to overcome his own legacy as the president vowing to politically eliminate the very ruler he now needs.
* Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.