There is one thing Joe Biden will probably not be able to do with regard to Saudi Arabia: making everyone happy. Since the US media have been speculating that the American President could soon travel to Riyadh, there has been a lot of excitement in Washington.
Because he would then also meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the Saudi de facto ruler known as “MbS”, who the US intelligence services are convinced had ordered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi to be “captured or killed”. Voices from Biden’s own party warn him against meeting the 36-year-old heir to the throne.
Khashoggi, who, among other things, was a columnist for the Washington Post and was critical of the crown prince’s policies and reforms, was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Before his election, Biden had therefore described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state and announced that he would no longer let the country get away with human rights violations. The Gulf Monarchy’s claim that the perpetrators acted on their own account is considered implausible.
Now, Saudi Arabia isn’t just geographically important – after all, it’s the 13th largest country in the world. As a leading oil exporter, the kingdom is strategically important and is also politically considered a traditional ally of the USA, for example in dealings with Iran. This was also shown by ex-President Donald Trump’s decision to make his very first trip abroad.
But Biden also wanted to distance himself from his predecessor on this issue and has never met MbS since taking office – from Riyadh’s point of view, an affront. Washington explained that the crown prince is not a head of state, that is still King Salman, even if he has long since handed over the leadership of the country to his favorite son due to illness.
But in the spring, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine changed the world situation dramatically. One consequence is the rising oil prices worldwide and thus the growing importance of oil-exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
Washington’s attempt to get Riyadh to produce more oil in order to dampen the rise in prices and thus drain Russia’s war chest was successful: the oil cartel led by Saudi Arabia recently agreed to increase production.
But the concession should have its price, according to the crown prince. Bin Salman wants the US President to finally recognize him as a partner and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler. And MbS knows exactly what power he currently has.
His country, which is often criticized by the West, is in demand as an energy supplier than it has been for years. The high oil prices brought the state-owned company Saudi Aramco the largest profit since its IPO at the end of 2019 – in the first quarter it was almost 40 billion dollars. When it comes to the current energy bottlenecks, nobody can get past the rulers in Riyadh.
That’s why the rethinking in the White House has long since begun. US government officials have repeatedly traveled to the Gulf in recent months.
Biden’s advisers have been urging the president to smooth things over for some time, which he appears to have accepted, albeit reluctantly. As of now, he will probably combine a trip to Saudi Arabia with a visit to Israel in July – if the troubled government in Jerusalem should then still be in place.
If the region’s president pays a visit, the trip will take place “in the context of important outcomes for U.S. citizens in the Middle East,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday. Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the US for almost 80 years.
There are “without question important interests” that are “interwoven” with the country. Biden himself last week praised Riyadh’s “courageous leadership” after a fragile ceasefire was extended in war-torn Yemen.
In this seven-year conflict, the Saudis are leading an alliance that is supporting the country’s government against Houthi Shia rebels. But behind the fight against the insurgents are more far-reaching interests – and fears. Because Riyadh sees it primarily as a conflict with arch-enemy Iran for power and influence.
Tehran supports the Houthis with both military advisers and state-of-the-art weapons, which are increasingly proving to be a threat to Saudi Arabia’s security. For example, the Houthis have repeatedly attacked Saudi oil production facilities with drones from Yemen – a shame for Crown Prince bin Salman, who, like other countries in the region, sees Iran’s striving for power as a danger.
The threat could become even greater if attempts to persuade Tehran to sign a new nuclear deal fail. Such an agreement is intended to prevent the country from building a nuclear weapon.
But the chances of the West being able to reach an understanding with the mullahs seem slim. That should also come up when Biden visits Saudi Arabia.
Because another close ally of the USA is also alarmed: Israel. It cannot be ruled out that Biden could try to convince Crown Prince bin Salman of the benefits of a defensive alliance with the Jewish state. Both countries are already working together on an informal level, as both governments have one goal in common: to show Iran its borders.