Analysis |

Biden's Saudi Arabia Trip Is Both Unnecessary and Prudent. Here's Why

The U.S. president doesn't like the moral compromise, but fully understands the strategic logic behind a reset with the Saudis. Still, he would be wise to wait and see what Riyadh can give him on China and Iran before going there

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
U.S. President Joe Biden boarding Air Force One as he leaves Japan on Tuesday.
U.S. President Joe Biden boarding Air Force One. He has good reasons to fly to Riyadh, but also some important reasons to reconsiderCredit: Eugene Hoshiko/AP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia is morally depraved, and it's highly doubtful that the United States will achieve any of its objectives, whether for oil production or regional alliances.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia is necessary; it's a justifiable exercise in political realism necessitated by changing circumstances.

Can these two statements be reconciled? In international relations and foreign policy, the answer is yes. It’s not a pretty sight, but it's doable.

Biden deserves all the criticism for his planned trip to Saudi Arabia in mid-July; nothing the Saudis might do outweighs the costs to the president. But geopolitical logic is at play and the president can't ignore it.

Already as a candidate, Biden made it abundantly clear that relations with Saudi Arabia must be recalibrated, that the alliance is shaky, that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a thug who authorized the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Thus the Saudis would be treated “like the pariahs they are.”

Yet Biden may also deserve the credit for accepting, however grudgingly, that a policy reversal is required, even if the advantages are dubious and may prove unattainable.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a Formula One race in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in December.Credit: Andrej Isakovic/ Pool via Reuters

It's first important to recognize the factors that led to such a sharp change of course. The crown prince realized his critical mistake; the killing of Khashoggi has badly damaged relations with the United States. Tensions were already high in 2016 when Barack Obama referred to the Saudis as “free riders” and the long war in Yemen threatened to drag Washington into a conflict it had absolutely no interest being in.

The crown prince's reserved contrition failed to impress anyone in Washington, so, via messengers and proxies, he gradually approached the Biden administration with a plea to mend the relationship his grandfather, King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, started with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945.

Biden was consistently indifferent, but the Saudis made a genuine effort. The truce in Yemen held, the blockade of Qatar was lifted, rhetoric against the Iranian nuclear deal was eased and, quietly, starting in 2019, Riyadh's informal relations with Israel were expanded.

Meanwhile, the Saudis' thinly veiled threats to hedge their geopolitical bets with Russia were met with skepticism in Washington. The “hold us back or we’ll go Russian” impressed nobody. Neither Riyadh nor Moscow needs the other’s oil, the Saudis don't really need or want Russian arms, and Russia’s ability – or interests – to expand its involvement as far south as the Gulf is questionable.

The United States did, however, maintain a stable relationship with Riyadh and decided not to further escalate the rhetoric. The reasons were Iran and of course China’s quest to penetrate the region.

Then came the paradigm shift Saudi Arabia had been hoping for: the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. In terms of Washington's Saudi policy, the invasion was a game changer. Defeating Vladimir Putin became the overriding U.S. foreign policy interest, and this possibly warranted a change of policy vis-à-vis Riyadh.

Saudi Aramco's Ras Tanura oil refinery and terminal in Saudi Arabia, May 2018.Credit: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

The sanctions on Russian oil and gas inevitably meant shortages, and the country with the reserves and ability to produce more barrels of oil a day was Saudi Arabia. That's a logical assumption, but also a misleading one. The Saudis can't produce more than another 500,000 to 600,000 barrels a day.

Combined with Western countries' limited refining capacity, the impact on oil and gasoline prices will be marginal. All pundits who believed that more Saudi oil would curb U.S. inflation were deluding themselves.

Still, the Saudis came around and promised to increase production and suspend Russia from the OPEC+ (OPEC plus other oil producing countries) oil quota agreement. As far as the Saudis were concerned, they did their part.

The confluence of the Russian invasion, the unlikelihood of a new Iran nuclear deal in the short run – causing agitation in the Middle East – high oil prices and the pivot to China impelled some in the Biden administration to rethink America's “pariah” approach to the Saudis. Then they began trying to persuade Biden.

This was sensibly wrapped not as forgiving Crown Prince Mohammed or even as an oil issue, but as a mechanism to maintain U.S. alliances, help forge an Israeli-Gulf defensive alliance to counter Iran and subsequently make it easier for the United States to gradually disengage from the region and focus on China and the Indo-Pacific.

An effective counter-Iran defensive alliance between Israel and the Gulf states needs U.S. auspices but requires Saudi participation. Saudi involvement requires closer ties between Riyadh and Jerusalem. That requires a U.S.-Saudi restart. That’s the plain truth as realpolitik would have it. It seems Biden didn’t like the moral compromise but fully understood the strategic logic.

Political realism involves hard decisions, sometimes ones that are morally and ethically questionable. Realpolitik is often so crude and cynical that it becomes unpalatable to many, intolerable to others.

But this is how states behave. When political realism involves an acute policy reversal, it's even harder to accept the tenets and calculations behind it. And that's exactly where Biden finds himself. The visit to Saudi Arabia will almost inevitably cost Biden in his party and with the media.

On June 7, six Democratic House members – including Intelligence Committee chief Adam Schiff and Foreign Affairs Committee head Gregory Meeks – sent a letter to Biden warning of the Saudis' overtures to China.

The lawmakers urged Biden to be more cautious on Riyadh and warned against further strategic cooperation with China on ballistic missiles. The letter came short of urging Biden to cancel his trip but stressed that engagement with the Saudis should be aimed at “recalibrating that relationship to serve America’s national interests.”

This encapsulates the dilemma: The reversal will be lucidly clear, but tangible achievements will be hard to come by.

The catalyst for a policy reversal isn't just changing circumstances but the absence of a viable alternative. Moral backtracking is revolting, but should the United States keep ostracizing Saudi Arabia? What exactly would that achieve? How does that advance U.S. interests? Is self-righteousness foreign policy?

It takes a stretch to reconcile “morally depraved” and “geopolitical necessity.” To achieve that, the Saudi deliverables need to be much clearer. Biden has a month to see this happening or reconsider the trip.

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