Analysis |

Mohammed Bin Salman Balances the Saudis' Bill With Biden

The U.S. president, keen to get the Saudis pumping more oil, is preparing to meet with the crown prince in Riyadh. Meanwhile, a thaw between the Saudis and Tehran will force Israel to re-examine its military options against Iran

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives Aidarous al-Zabidi, member of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in April.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives Aidarous al-Zabidi, member of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in April.Credit: Saudi Royal Court/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It’s hard not to be amused by the decision by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to invest $1 billion annually in a foundation funding research into ways to slow aging. After all, a long life is delaying the transfer of power from 86-year-old King Salman to the prince, the guy who cut journalist Jamal Khashoggi's short.

Another half smile goes to King Salman, who beat the gloomy forecasts about his life expectancy when he became king in 2015. He's almost like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who lived many years despite the pancreatic cancer that Israeli intelligence diagnosed him with, or Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a walking medical miracle. This may also apply to Vladimir Putin, for that matter.

Before Saudi-financed research into aging begins, Riyadh will be asked to provide information on another foundation, its Public Investment Fund, which, according to reports in the United States, sank $2 billion into Affinity Partners, a global investment firm owned by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump's son-in-law.

Affinity triggered some joyous headlines in Israel because Kushner’s company is expected to invest a chunk of the Saudi money in Israel, mainly in high-tech. Prince Mohammed’s permission to invest his money in Israel is considered a landmark on the road to normalized relations between the kingdom and Israel.

Jared Kushner speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, in 2020.Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

But early in the month, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform launched an investigation into Affinity based on suspicions that Riyadh's investment came on the heels of concessions by Trump to Saudi Arabia; the Saudi money was transferred six months after Trump left office.

It’s too early to predict what this investigation will show, but it doesn't overshadow other signs of closer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. These include reports about dozens of Israeli businesspeople visiting Saudi Arabia, and about an agreement under which airliners from around the world will be allowed to fly over Saudi Arabia to and from Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel has consented to the redeployment of the multilateral peacekeeping force stationed on the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which Egypt has transferred to the Saudis, amid the Saudi foreign minister's declarations on the benefits the two countries can expect after signing a peace treaty, conditional on resolving "the Palestinian problem."

This week came another interesting report, whose reliability is uncertain: Saudi Arabia and Israel have launched a “situation room” in Turkey for discussing the establishment of diplomatic relations. The report comes from a Twitter wag named mujtahidd, who has revealed fascinating secrets from the royal court.

He says the situation room is on the 14th floor of an Istanbul office building, with 13 mercenaries from various Arab countries working there, enjoying an annual budget of $4 million. According to mujtahidd, the office is headed by Saud al-Qahtani, Prince Mohammed’s personal adviser, who is suspected of initiating and supervising Khashoggi's murder.

The tightening relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia require an American payment: a visit by President Joe Biden and a “historic” handshake with Prince Mohammed. This trip has been postponed to sometime in July from this month.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a visit to the Port of Los Angeles, during the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles on Friday.Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

In the meantime, there is growing opposition in Congress and the American media to the visit, including talk about Biden’s alleged treachery and Prince Mohammed getting everything he wanted from Biden, who as a candidate called the prince a pariah.

Meanwhile, gasoline prices in the United States continue to rise, and Europe will stop buying Russian oil by the end of the year. The need to recruit the Saudis to the battle against Russia and rising oil prices is becoming increasingly urgent.

This necessity tests whether Biden’s principles, which include promoting human rights and shunning the man responsible for Khashoggi’s death, are worth lower oil prices and the vast damage caused to the West by the Russia sanctions.

The White House is going out of its way to justify the visit to Saudi Arabia. The sermon by White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre at a press briefing Tuesday, and Biden’s words the previous Friday, confirmed the pressure that Biden is under.

"Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the United States for eight decades. Every president since FDR has met with Saudi leaders. And the president considers Saudi Arabia an important partner on a host of regional and global strategies, including other efforts to end the war in Yemen, contain Iran, and counterterrorism," Jean-Pierre said.

"Saudi pilots flew with ours in the war against ISIS, its navy patrols with – with ours in the Red Sea and the Gulf, and the U.S. military personnel are based in Saudi Arabia. As I’ve said, the President will meet with any leader if it serves the interests of the American people."

She dodged a question on whether the president would keep calling Saudi Arabia a pariah state. Her acrobatics were inversely proportional to Biden's comments on Saudi Arabia last year.

The president discovered that America’s energy independence isn't enough to release him from his dependence on Arab oil when there's a global energy crisis. If the message three years ago was that Trump could kick around his Arab allies and market his “deal of the century” because Arab countries can't impose an oil-dependent foreign policy on the United States, the constraints of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the accompanying sanctions have forced the Americans to swallow their pride.

Last September, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with Prince Mohammed in Riyadh. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mohammed tried to create a friendly atmosphere, welcoming his guest in shorts, but the meeting turned into a shouting match when Sullivan raised the issue of Khashoggi’s murder. Mohammed yelled that he'll never discuss the matter and that the United States can forget about the Saudis increasing oil production.

This was the Saudi position even after the Ukraine war started and even after CIA chief William Burns met with Prince Mohammed in April in an attempt to convince him to increase oil production. Burns heard a clear no, though a polite one; no yelling. In early June, Mohammed met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who went to Saudi Arabia to ask that the Russian oil market not be harmed by an increase in Saudi production.

Biden decided to lay the wildcard on the table and offer himself as payment in exchange for oil, even receiving a Saudi down payment. Riyadh urged OPEC+ members to launch a 600,000-barrel-a-day output increase in July, not September. For the Saudis, this was a “sacrifice” for which it expected a reward, even if it hardly affected global oil prices.

The U.S. request that Riyadh not buy Chinese missiles is hanging in the balance. The only issue where Biden can chalk up an achievement is the cease-fire in Yemen and the talks between Saudi Arabia and the two sides there.

Riyadh, which initiated a war that claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties, reaped praise from the U.S. special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking. He said the Saudis had shown a steadfast commitment to the diplomatic process, making many concessions that weren't possible last year. Such praise wasn't even heard from Trump, the Saudis’ true friend.

The Saudis want to end the war not only to placate the administration but to appease Congress, which is creating problems for American arms deals with the kingdom. This war has exacted a heavy price from the Saudis, a resounding failure for Prince Mohammed since no military victory was achieved even with the Saudis' sophisticated arms. They realize they have to reach an understanding with Tehran if they want to end Houthi attacks on their country.

So they're holding talks with Iran in Baghdad. This week, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced that the talks had made significant progress and that the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers may meet soon. These countries broke off relations in 2016, but now they might be dividing the oil market among themselves; that is, if a new nuclear accord is signed, letting Iran return to the global market, which is waiting for its oil.

If Israel expects a resurrection of the anti-Iranian Arab coalition, it shouldn't hold its breath. After the United Arab Emirates, which has resumed relations with Tehran, and Qatar, Iran’s partner in the Persian Gulf's largest gas field, Saudi Arabia may become Iran’s newest ally.

These ties won’t come at the expense of Riyadh's ties with Israel and won't stand in the way of a normalization, but they force Israel to reexamine its military options against Iran.

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