What President Biden is hoping to get out of his trip to Saudi Arabia

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Candidate Biden said the Saudis would ‘pay the price’ for murder; now President Biden wants their help.

In the coming weeks, as President Joe Biden prepares for a highly anticipated trip to the Middle East in mid-July, including stops in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, you’re no doubt going to be hearing the word “pariah” often.

In a 2019 Democratic primary debate, candidate Biden used that word as he vowed that as president, he would isolate the government of Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who had been credibly accused of ordering the killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Biden added that the U.S. would make the Saudis “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s murder, that there was “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” and that the U.S. would “end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children” in the war in Yemen.

As a candidate, Biden was attempting to draw a contrast with then-President Donald Trump, who rarely missed a chance to praise Saudi Arabia as a customer for U.S. weapons, supplier of oil and ally against Iran — to the point that he included such praise in his statement responding to Khashoggi’s murder. Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia is unlikely to match the glitz and pageantry of Trump’s now famous trip in 2017; sword dances and glowing orbs are probably not on the schedule. But a sit-down with the crown prince, known widely as MBS is still going to be hard to explain for a president who vowed to make the Saudis “pay the price” and has made the global fight against autocracy a centerpiece of his foreign policy.

So what is Biden hoping to get out of this reembrace of Saudi Arabia? It’s largely about oil prices, a peace deal and tensions with Iran. He will have uphill battles on all those fronts.

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The road back to Riyadh

In its first year in office, the Biden administration tread cautiously when it came to Saudi Arabia — not the full-fledged embrace of the Trump years, but not exactly a “pariah” policy either. In 2021, the White House announced it was halting U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. U.S. logistical and intelligence support for the war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen had begun during the Obama administration, but a number of Obama officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken later expressed regret for the policy. And as the humanitarian toll in Yemen grew (if you include the famine caused by the war, the conflict has killed more than 377,000 people), along with numerous accusations of war crimes and the targeting of civilians by the Saudis, stopping the war became a major cause for anti-war activists in the U.S. and foreign policy progressives on Capitol Hill. But even after the announcement, the U.S. has continued to provide maintenance support and “defensive” military aid to the kingdom — a distinction that’s not always so clear-cut. The U.S. has kept selling arms to both Saudi Arabia and its coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates.

As for the Khashoggi case, which arguably did more damage to U.S.-Saudi relations than any event since the 9/11 attacks, the Biden administration released a previously classified intelligence assessment which held the crown prince responsible for Khashoggi’s murder but stopped short of taking any direct action against MBS himself.

This certainly did not satisfy human rights activists. “These kind of half-in-half-out measures made it very clear that they were not serious,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, the advocacy group founded by Khashoggi, told Grid. “They were really playing a game with the American people.”

But the middle-path approach didn’t appear to win the White House much favor in the Gulf either. This became particularly evident after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. During the early days of the war, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE reportedly declined calls from Biden out of frustration that the U.S. had not responded more forcefully to Houthi missile attacks on their territory. Both countries abstained in a bellwether U.N. vote about whether to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“I think the war brought the political and economic importance of the Gulf Region and Saudi Arabia in particular home to the administration,” Firas Maksad, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Grid. “[The Saudis] understood that they were going to have significant leverage after Russia invaded Ukraine and so they played hardball.”

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All about the oil

One thing we know about the Biden agenda for the Saudi trip: He will ask MBS to put more Saudi oil on the global market.

For years, American politicians promised that by achieving “energy independence,” the U.S. could extricate itself from the messy geopolitics of the Middle East. But even though the U.S. has exported more oil than it has imported for nearly five years, oil is a fungible, globally traded commodity — and that means the Saudis still play a big role in determining what Americans pay to run their cars and heat their homes. It also means oil is just as much the key to the U.S.-Saudi relationship as it was when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat down with MBS’s grandfather in 1945.

The war in Ukraine has sent oil prices to their highest levels in years — and high gas prices are punishing Biden politically. After months of lobbying by the U.S., OPEC+ — the global oil cartel chaired by Saudi Arabia — agreed in early June to increase production by 648,000 barrels a day in July and August, a relatively modest move that had little impact on oil prices. The White House would like to see more, but it’s not clear how much it can realistically expect.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the only oil producers with the “spare capacity” to adjust output in response to market conditions, but as renowned oil historian Daniel Yergin recently told Bloomberg, “The thing is, there isn’t much more oil in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to really significantly change the market … The supply situation is so razor thin.”

Still, the situation is dire enough that Biden may feel he needs to try. Beyond the domestic political impact, high oil prices are also a problem for Ukraine and its allies; the prices have driven many countries to purchase Russian oil at discounted rates, meaning that despite sanctions, Russia’s oil revenues have actually increased since the war began, to about $20 billion in May.

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But do the Saudis want to throw Biden a lifeline?

“The Gulf states are really biding their time,” Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, told Grid. “They want to maintain cordial relations, but they are very aware of the domestic situation in the U.S. In a few months, the Republicans can take back control of Congress and then Trump might come back to the White House, and then it’ll be the golden years again.”

The Israel factor

The Abraham Accords, a series of agreements normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries — the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — were arguably the most notable diplomatic achievement of the Trump presidency and one which the Biden administration has more or less embraced despite criticism that doing so removes pressure on Israel to move toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

One prize which the Trump team was not able to achieve — and not for lack of trying — was a similar deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The two countries — for all their historical differences — share an enemy in Iran and a concern about that country’s nuclear ambitions. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan has reportedly discussed normalization with Israel in talks with MBS, and Israel has been generally supportive of improved U.S.-Saudi relations, but experts who spoke with Grid do not expect a major announcement on Saudi-Israeli ties during this trip. With its larger population and central role in the Islamic world as custodian of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is more sensitive to public backlash than its smaller and less powerful neighbors Bahrain and the UAE. And Saudi Arabia already enjoys the benefits of a behind-the-scenes intelligence and diplomatic engagement with Israel, particularly on the issue of Iran, as well as increasing business ties. A more limited deal, such as opening up Saudi airspace to more Israel flights, is more likely.

Biden will have a tougher time selling the benefits of any Israeli-Arab normalization on a planned stop in the West Bank. “For Palestinians, this obviously doesn’t look like it’s going to facilitate a two-state solution,” Zaha Hassan, a Palestinian human rights lawyer and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Grid. “Palestinians are not keen on jumping on the Abraham Accords bandwagon and they’re not keen to see Saudi Arabia cultivated in this regard.”


Then there’s Iran

Biden is visiting the Gulf at a relatively calm moment. In Yemen, a tentative ceasefire has held since the beginning of April. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have reconciled with neighboring Qatar ending a blockade that upended regional politics for years. Relations between the Gulf countries and regional rival Turkey have improved.

The calm may be deceptive.

Absent a dramatic last-minute breakthrough, by the time Biden arrives in the Middle East, the last-ditch efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal may have already collapsed. Since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal in 2018, Iran has been enriching uranium in violation of the agreement’s terms, and the U.N. believes the country now has roughly enough material to build a bomb.

Meanwhile, Israel has been waging what appears to be a shadow war against Iran, including the assassinations of top military officers and nuclear scientists, and military strikes targeting Iranian assets in Syria — including airstrikes that shut down the Damascus airport this month.

“It’s almost like Israel is trying to find the point at which Iran will retaliate,” Marc Lynch, political scientist and Middle East specialist at George Washington University, told Grid. In a possible early sign of such retaliation, Israel claims to have foiled a number of Iranian attempts to attack Israeli citizens in Turkey in recent days. Tensions will rise further if the nuclear deal talks do collapse and the U.S. and its partners step up already strong sanctions against Iran. During the high point of Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, Iranian retaliation often took the form of proxy attacks against U.S. allies in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

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“If there’s a strategic logic in the trip, it’s about trying to get everyone in line for a post-JCPOA Middle East,” said Lynch, referring to the acronym for the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The U.S. wants no part of another major war in the Middle East right now for a host of reasons, not least the amount of oil it would take off the world markets. Lynch thinks the leaders Biden is meeting in the Gulf may agree. “If you’re the UAE or to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia, you are really worried about an actual war with Iran,” he said. “You definitely want to see a stronger, more robust American presence. You want to buy more weapons. You want to see sanctions on Iran. But in an actual war, [the Gulf countries are] going to be the first targets.”

Axios has reported that the U.S. and the UAE have discussed an agreement that would include certain security guarantees for the UAE if it were attacked. It’s not yet clear what such an agreement would entail; a binding mutual defense guarantee — such as Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty for NATO members — would likely require approval from Congress.

The price

Biden is hardly the first U.S. president to talk tough about Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail and then reverse course in office. Even Trump referred to the Saudis as “people that push gays off buildings … people that kill women and treat women horribly” when he was running against Hillary Rodham Clinton. And given that MBS is in his mid-30s with no serious domestic rivals, he could conceivably rule one of the world’s richest and most powerful countries for the next 50 years. There’s a strong argument that the U.S. can’t afford to simply cut him loose.

But it’s still going to be difficult to square this trip with Biden’s rhetoric when it comes to other parts of the globe. Biden has described the war in Ukraine and geopolitical competition with China as examples of “the battle between democracy and autocracy.” And earlier this month, the Biden administration chose not to invite the leaders of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua to a summit of Latin American leaders in the U.S. because, as White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre put it, “We do not believe that dictators should be invited.”

MBS has moved to liberalize his kingdom’s religious laws — most notably ending the infamous ban on women driving and recently ordering the release of some high-profile women’s rights activists. But Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy and one of the most repressive societies on earth. It is less “free” than Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua, according to the U.S.-based monitor Freedom House’s annual rankings.

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No administration is ever entirely consistent when it comes to human rights. And foreign policy often requires trade-offs. But the U.S. has a credibility problem when it comes to Ukraine, particularly in the non-Western world, where Western appeals to abstract arguments about human rights and democracy have often fallen flat. The Mideast trip could add to the perception that the U.S. has different standards when it comes to the Middle East.

Biden, after all, has also threatened to make Russian President Vladimir Putin a “pariah.” Observers in the rest of the world could be forgiven for wondering exactly how he defines that word.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.