President Joe Biden, Crown Prince MBS and Realpolitik
[Neil Quillam is Associate Fellow, Middle East & North Africa Programme at Chatham House and Alice Gower is Director of Security at Azure Security.]
There was much interest, and much speculation, about the outcome of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July. Once it shifted from “will he, won’t he” to “yes, he will,” it spawned a cottage industry of op-eds, analysis, and roundtables. There was much discussion about Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) joining the US, Saudi Arabia’s Abraham Accords. Aramco’s oil production is increasing, Israel’s security is gaining prominence, and the US is leading the creation of a so-called Middle East Defense Coalition, which includes the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Israel—and, crucially, the US and Saudis can “ask what” each other.
In the end, the outcome of the meeting was modest, but significant – it re-established a direct line between the White House and the Saudi leadership (read MBS). This was probably the optimal outcome for this administration – no relationship overhaul or reset, but a recognition that functionality must win and thus communication was restored at the top.
US-Saudi relations were never in danger
Contrary to public perception, the fundamental relationship was never really in peril. Some elements are believed to have come under pressure, particularly due to the associated domestic political views and personal tensions over difficult issues such as human rights, freedom of the press, the Yemen conflict and the Khashoggi assassination, which played out on the international stage.
As is the case with all new incumbents, Biden’s initial focus was to isolate himself at some distance from his predecessor—as much as his international audience for his domestic audience. He had a special mission to bring America back to a more stable and credible foreign policy on which the world relied. However, his challenge in the Middle East was different. The leadership in Saudi Arabia had fully embraced former President Trump, while in the West, political watchers waited in vain for the Crown Prince’s brutal style to be controlled by the weight of the office. But MBS was never socialized by his position of power, leaving the incoming Biden administration to shift gears and, in the eyes of Democrats, course-correct for a more traditional approach to the Kingdom.
Biden’s outspoken attitude toward Riyadh—from campaign to entry into the Oval Office—was more to address Democrats’ concern about Trump’s behavior, which was seen as morally questionable by the American political left, as it bay. The kingdom was to follow. His major priority was to show his party the moral strength, and he made several decisions that put him on a collision course with MBS. His initial announcement that he would only speak to King Salman, citing protocol, was a clear rebuke to MBS. Biden intended to deliver a message: We’re going to play by the rules, and we expect you to do the same. In February 2021, the White House did two things. First, it released the CIA report on the Istanbul murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The report found that MBS had personally ordered the killing of Saudi journalist Adnan Khashoggi. Second, the White House halted US support for offensive operations in Yemen and suspended sales of specific weapons to Saudi Arabia.
mbs plays hardball
In response, MBS took its stern line, intended to show both the Saudi population and international leaders that Riyadh’s policies would not be determined or unreasonably influenced by the US. He was striking and his sentiment was widely shared by many Saudis and others in the Gulf. MBS was a hallmark of the sentiment that Washington no longer calls the shots in the Middle East. With the advantage of youth, MBS basically shrugged his shoulders at Biden, saying “whatever” is evidenced in his interview. the Atlantic in March.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, American skepticism towards Saudi Arabia changed. The US and its European allies sought to respond to Russian aggression, even as oil prices rose to around $140 a barrel. Rising oil prices left Biden with no choice but to reach out to MBS directly after attempts to do so by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan failed. Sullivan was unable to persuade the Saudi leadership to increase production and offset the steep increase in prices.
MBS’s much-publicized refusal to take Biden’s “oil call” in March was a peak moment. Not only did this stir up personal animosity between Biden and MBS, but it also struck a chord with both of them on the need to dial things up and work together for the sake of their mutual national interests. Buoyed by the combination of high oil prices and the fact that he was brought in by French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, MBS may have felt Biden wanted to visit. Global events forced another gear change at the White House: Biden succumbed to real politics and met MBS in Riyadh, fist bump and all.
But under public disputes and personal tensions, the multifaceted dimensions of bilateral relations—defense, trade, finance and investment—continued at a speed and in both directions. Trade volume between the two countries reached close to $25bn in 2021, a 22% increase from 2020. There was a significant increase in non-oil exports from the Kingdom to the US. Now, Biden is slowly whispering on defense sales, saying sanctions may be reconsidered in the near future. Some may point to the need for more oil in the market to counter high gasoline prices as a driving force, while others may point to a broader strategy to advance Arab-Israeli security cooperation to counter Iran. However, especially now that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) appears to be dead. Earlier this year, the US allowed the sale of Patriot missiles and anti-ballistic defense systems to Riyadh following Houthi attacks against the Kingdom. If the recently extended ceasefire in Yemen becomes a permanent ceasefire, with the volatile, but still on hold, US arms sales to Saudi Arabia widening again.
While the Biden-MBS meeting garnered most of the media attention, and many analysts, including your writers, rolled their eyes at the suggestion of another so-called Arab NATO project, the Jeddah visit laid some tracks toward developing a multilateral regional security framework . , Rather than focusing on tougher security elements such as air and missile defence, the US and Saudi Arabia will seek to bring members of the ‘Negev 9’ together by engaging with them on softer security issues at different times, speeds and locations. Bid to work towards greater multilateral security integration, but with no precise expiration date in mind.
By doing so, the Biden administration is continuing a long-standing tradition of trying to develop a regional security architecture that includes Israel after the success of the Abrahamic Agreement—and to normalize relations with Arab states. The long trek to Israel continues. If it is successful, it would allow the US, on the one hand, to remain at the center of regional security and, on the other, reduce its level of commitment, as regional partners increasingly share the burden.
There is no doubt that the US would like to spend less time and energy helping manage regional affairs, especially given its focus on China. The quest for a new regional security architecture to bring ‘like-minded’ states together to work collaboratively is a long-term project that could benefit from a catalyst of technological leaps that could foster quicker and more comprehensive cooperation. Is. But there is no doubt that its success will only be achieved if Washington shows unwavering commitment and relentlessly reassures regional leaders that they are valuable and will never be forgotten. Fist bumping with MBS may have caught Biden’s crow, but he knew it was a necessary step to open up important communications not only between the White House and the Saudi leadership, but to give regional partners a one-mile run. Also used to work as stone. Security framework to meet Iran’s challenge in the post-JCPOA era.
[Arab Digest first published this article and is a partner of Fair Observer.]
Vladimir Putin takes the Middle East and North Africa to the brink of a tragic catastrophe
This week’s guest of the Arab Digest editor, William Law, is Tarek Megerisi of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Megarisi analyzes the crisis that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). He calls for renewed thinking and immediate action on the part of Europe and international bodies, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to prevent a human catastrophe in the MENA region. The IMF, international bodies and Europe have limited time to avert a catastrophe that could be of an unimaginable scale.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.