What To Make Of President Biden's Proposed Visit To Saudi Arabia

by Sagar Kar Debroy - Jun 15, 2022 05:02 PM +05:30 IST
What To Make Of President Biden's Proposed Visit To Saudi ArabiaUS President Joe Biden.
Snapshot
  • The proposed visit marks a U-turn in President Biden's stand on the oil-rich kingdom. He had pledged to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" nation.

The White House announced yesterday (14 June) that US President Joe Biden will visit Saudi Arabia next month.

The visit will mark a U-turn in President Biden's stand vis a vis the oil-rich kingdom.

During his campaign, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" nation over the kingdom's human rights record and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

"They will pay the price and I will make them in fact the pariah that they are," he said.

In a 2019 presidential debate, Biden accused the Saudis of “murdering children” in an apparent reference to the war in Yemen.

In his first days as President, Biden even ended Washington’s support for the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war.

He stopped “offensive” arms sales to Saudi Arabia and lifted a terrorist designation the Donald Trump administration imposed on the Houthis. According to a report by FT, officials in Saudi Arabia were peeved.

Since his tenure began, President Biden has also been unwilling to engage with the Crown Prince, the de-facto ruler of the kingdom, choosing instead of engage with the crown prince's ageing father, King Salman.

The reason for this reluctance is the crown prince's alleged role in Jamal Khashoggi's killing. Khashoggi was a columnist with the Washington Post and a critic of Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MSB.

The crown prince on his part has denied any involvement with the death of Khashoggi. In an interview to Graeme Wood of the Atlantic, MBS claimed that Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people he would hypothetically assassinate, implying that Khashoggi was not important enough.

In the same interview, MBS claimed that he does not care if Biden misunderstands him and that, "it’s up to him (Biden) to think about the interests of America."

President Biden, facing Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a global spike in energy prices and a growing nuclear threat from Iran, has determined that he can no longer afford to antagonise the crown prince.

Sky-high gas prices, which touched $5 per gallon over the weekend, have consumed the White House and become a major political liability for Biden. In some places, such as Northern California, gas prices have crossed $7 per gallon. With the midterm elections nearing, President Biden is seeking to ease the pain at the gas pump.

If the Saudis agree to pump more oil, the price of gas will fall.

President Biden is claiming that his visit to Saudi Arabia is not tied to global energy prices, even though American officials have been busy pressurising the Saudis to pump more oil.

"The commitments from the Saudis don't relate to anything having to do with energy, it happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia. That's the reason I'm going. And it has to do with national security for them -- for Israelis," said President Biden.

Biden will make his first trip to the Middle East as President from 13 to 16 July. His first stop will be Israel and then the West Bank before heading to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

During his July visit, Biden is widely expected to try to secure a boost in Saudi oil production as his administration scrambles to tame spiralling fuel costs — spurred by the Russian invasion of Ukraine — and inflation at home that is projected to hurt his Democratic Party in the upcoming mid-term Congressional elections.

According to a report by Axios, the Biden administration has also been quietly mediating among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt on a potential deal to transfer two strategic islands in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty.

The Tiran and Sanafir islands.
The Tiran and Sanafir islands.

The Tiran and Sanafir islands control the Straits of Tiran — a strategic sea passage to the ports of Aqaba in Jordan and Eilat in Israel. Saudi Arabia gave Egypt control of the islands in 1950. They were later demilitarised as part of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

Under the treaty, Tiran and Sanafir must be a demilitarised zone and have the presence of a force of multinational observers led by the United States.

Despite public protests in Egypt, the Egyptian Parliament in June 2017 and the country's supreme court in March 2018 approved a deal to transfer sovereignty back to Saudi Arabia.

But the deal needed buy-in from Israel because of the 1979 peace treaty. Israel gave in principle its approval to transfer the islands back to Saudi Arabia pending an agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on continuing the work of the multinational force of observers who are in charge of patrolling the islands and ensuring that freedom of navigation in the strait remains unhindered.

In return, Israel seeks Saudi Arabia to allow Israeli airlines to cross more Saudi airspace, which would dramatically shorten flights to India, Thailand and China.

Israel does not have formal relations with Saudi Arabia, but covertly co-operates with the kingdom on security and intelligence issues as both share a similar threat perception with regard to Iran.

Despite the trip's significance, Biden's own past rhetoric on Saudi Arabia and especially the crown prince has resulted in Biden facing criticism for the trip before it has even begun.

According to a report by the New York Times, "the trip generated waves of criticism even before it was officially announced. Human rights activists, media figures and even some of Mr. Biden’s fellow Democrats denounced the idea of a president shaking hands with a Saudi leader said to have ordered the killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi".

Although the Russia-Ukraine crisis has sparked recognition in Washington of the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia — the only oil producer with the ability to significantly increase crude production — as Biden seeks to isolate Putin and stabilise energy markets, analysts believe that President Biden's moral views on the crown prince will ensure that he faces criticism at home for this trip and many will frame this trip as 'capitulation by the President'.

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