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Biden’s Visit to Saudi Arabia: Interests Prevail Over Campaign Promises

On June 14, the White House announced that President Joe Biden would visit Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Saudi Arabia in July. The announcement drew a great deal of attention and criticism, as it came following the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israel on the one hand, and Washington’s rising tensions with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the other.


Shocked by the announcement, Biden’s critics described the decision as a “betrayal.” The president’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia marks the biggest U-turn yet in his foreign policy. During his campaign for president in 2020, Biden labeled Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” vowed to institute an arms embargo on Riyadh, and insisted that Saudi leaders would “pay the price” for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which the U.S. intelligence agencies concluded was approved by the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).


Although the Biden administration has given no indication that it will pursue a broader ‘reset’ of Washington’s relationship with Riyadh, it seems to have accepted some level of U.S.-Saudi cooperation as a matter of geopolitical necessity. Most notably, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February led to soaring oil and gas prices in the U.S., and the ongoing negotiations with Iran concerning the JCPOA have stalled. The rising regional threat from Iran, and Israel’s bid to broaden the scope of its normalization with Arab regimes by undertaking joint defense-security measures to counter Tehran, have also contributed to Biden’s decision.


Realism’s Triumph?


The announcement to visit Saudi Arabia put the U.S. administration on defense. To dismiss the criticism, U.S. officials framed the tour as a part of a regional initiative, during which the U.S. president will take part in a summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq in Jeddah. Biden downplayed the importance of his upcoming meeting with MBS by emphasizing that it would occur as part of the international meeting in Jeddah; in this sense, a meeting between the president and the crown prince would simply be inevitable, given the multilateral nature of the summit.


Furthermore, to validate the President’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia, many analysts have framed the argument through the lens of realism and U.S. national interests, suggesting that it is acceptable for America to quietly discount the importance of ethics and values if its core interests are at stake.


From this perspective, the primary motive behind Biden’s decision is simple. In order for the U.S.-led camp to triumph in Russia’s war on Ukraine, it must continue to sanction Moscow’s most critical source of income and foreign currency, its oil and gas sector, limiting the Kremlin’s access to funds and cutting off its ability to wage a protracted foreign conflict. Ideally, this would be done without disrupting the international energy market and causing a significant rise in prices for other nations. In theory, Washington might be able to achieve this by asking the Arab Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to scale up their production capacity, pumping more oil into the market to make up for the Russian shortfall.


However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have each used Russia’s war on Ukraine to increase their own political and economic fortunes. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have also criticized Biden’s policies concerning Iran, Yemen, and U.S. relations with the governments of these two Arab Gulf countries. Both nations did not condemn the Russian invasion at the beginning of the war and refused to answer Washington’s request to increase their production levels—a shocking development, given that maintaining a stable oil market is the bedrock of the U.S.-Saudi security partnership. Accordingly, the war on Ukraine has reflected the fragility of the U.S. partnership with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and increased tensions between them.


To be sure, Biden has other options for lowering oil prices. Reaching a renewed nuclear deal with Iran, as well as lessening sanctions on Venezuela, would each have helped to lower domestic gas prices in the United States without requiring an acute U-turn policy on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. However, the Biden administration has failed to make progress on either of these objectives, and many experts believe that negotiations with Iran are on the verge of collapse. The question is whether his visit to Saudi Arabia will help fix the relations based on the historic trade-off of more U.S. security assurances to the oil-rich governments in return for a commitment to pump more oil into the energy market.


What Saudi Arabia and the UAE hope to hear from Biden during his trip to Riyadh are concrete assurances regarding the possible reactivation of the JCPOA, how Washington will respond if Tehran continues down the road to produce a nuclear bomb, and what Biden’s plan is to reset the relations with them based on a stronger military and security partnership.


United States’ Motives


Contrary to what some observers might suggest, Biden’s move should not be interpreted as a U.S. comeback to the region. From a strategic standpoint, reconfiguring the U.S. presence in the region is ultimately inevitable. Washington will probably seek to detach itself from the region, repositioning to face a rising China in East Asia. In this sense, U.S. policymakers have increasingly seen the Middle East as a spoiler preventing Washington from using its time, effort, political investment, money, and military power in more important areas. Additionally, more and more Americans have become convinced that close U.S. relations with the dictators of the Arab world are incompatible with its values and serve to undermine Washington’s global leadership, message, and image.


For possible future disentanglement from the region, U.S. officials have worked to establish a form of collective security arrangements between the Arab Gulf countries and their Middle Eastern allies to counter the rising threat of Iran. This idea of forming a strategic alliance in the Middle East is not a new one; it has come under many labels and with different names, such as MESA, the Arab NATO, or MEAD. This alliance has also been viewed as a tool to embed Israel in regional security arrangements. From the U.S. and the Israeli perspectives, such a step would have strategic benefits for both nations, including lessening the burden on Washington and broadening the normalization process between Israel and allied Arab governments.


In contrast to the UAE, a myriad of domestic political factors have prevented Saudi Arabia from publicly normalizing its relations with Israel for the time being. To be sure, Saudi Arabia and Israel have taken some steps in this direction and have quietly cooperated in regional security issues. However, Saudi officials were spooked after former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to disclose Israel’s relationship with Saudi Arabia for domestic political gains, undermining bilateral cooperation and prompting Riyadh to slow down and resort to less explicit measures. To override this problem, the Biden administration has assumed the role of a broker, primarily through the instrumentalization of an American-led regional air defense alliance project, incorporating Israel with several Arab Gulf nations with the aim of thwarting Iranian air attacks.


According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. convened a secret meeting of top military officials from Israel and Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the U.A.E. and Bahrain) in March to counter the growing threat from Iran. The meeting reportedly resulted in an agreement to establish a hotline to communicate immediate threats in preparation for engagement on a governmental level. Likewise, Axios reported last May that the US was secretly mediating a security arrangement between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt.


In addition to the energy dossier, Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia is expected to build on this issue and promote regional engagement with Israel.  For the time being, Washington will be assuming a dual role, functioning both as a cushion and facilitator to bring Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords. A trade-off that involves oil, Israel, and the security of the Arab Gulf governments might improve the relations between the U.S. administration and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. However, it will fall short of addressing any of the region’s major and chronic problems, let alone the dilemma of protecting U.S. interests without strengthening the hands of the authoritarian regimes at the expense of the Arab public.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.


Dr. Ali Bakir is a Research Assistant Professor at Ibn Khaldon Center. He is also a senior consultant who focuses on MENA geopolitics and security, foreign and defense policies of Turkey and the Gulf States, great power politics in the ME, and small states’ behavior.

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