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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

Biden in Saudi Arabia: Rekindling a difficult friendship

July 14, 2022

Harsh words were spoken and weapons exports banned. But now US President Joe Biden is seeking to make amends with the Saudi Arabian leadership. Security and oil are likely to be on the agenda.

Joe Biden und Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud
US President Joe Biden has barely even communicated with de-facto Saudi leader, Mohammed bin Salman, until now

His decision to stop in Saudi Arabia as part of this week's trip to the Middle East trip was so controversial, that US President Joe Biden was moved to justify it in an editorial. In the US newspaper, the Washington Post, the president wrote he was well aware that there were many in his country who didn't agree with his decision to stop off in Saudi Arabia, after meetings in Israel.

However, as he argued, "my views on human rights are clear and long-standing […] when I meet with Saudi leaders on Friday, my aim will be to strengthen a strategic partnership going forward that's based on mutual interests and responsibilities, while also holding true to fundamental American values."

Even just talking to Saudi Arabia's de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, is a turnaround for Biden. In the past, he has described Saudi Arabia as a "pariah state" — in particular, with reference to the brutal 2018 murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi  — and said he would only deal with MBS' father, the king. 

A van with a protest poster highlights Saudi human rights violations, including the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was likely dismembered inside Saudi Arabia's Istanbul embassyImage: Jon Super/AP/picture alliance

In February 2021, the Biden administration also announced the end of its support for offensive operations in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition against the Iran-backed Houthi militias. This included a stop on US sales of relevant "offensive" weapons to Saudi Arabia.

It's unlikely that Biden would make such comments today, Eckart Woertz, director of the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies, told DW. "Of course, when it comes to human rights, there will still be lip service paid," Woertz said. "But they [the statements] will be phrased differently than they were back then."

Enhanced ties with israel

The world has changed significantly since Biden made those statements, Woertz noted.

A number of factors are responsible for this change of attitude. For one thing, it appears that Biden is trying to coax Saudi Arabian leaders into more cooperation and diplomacy with Israel, a long-time US ally in the region.

It is unlikely that the Saudis will sign the so-called Abraham Accords anytime soon. The Accords have seen several Middle Eastern nations sign treaties to enhance trade and diplomacy with Israel.

Signing the Abraham Accords in Washington
The Abraham Accords were a project of the Trump administrationImage: Alex Wong/Getty Images

But, Woertz said, "cooperation behind the scenes is quite conceivable." Several US news outlets have reported on this. The website Axios said that the White House was working on a "roadmap" for normalizing relations with Israel and the Wall Street Journal wrote that secret talks were already underway, with discussions centered on trade and security.

Experts have suggested that Saudi Arabia may well open its airspace to commercial Israel air traffic. There has also been speculation about the establishment of a kind of NATO for the Middle East.

Pumping more oil?

But the most significant factor behind the US president's visit to Saudi Arabia is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war in Europe is becoming a huge economic challenge for the world. Sanctions on Russian fuel products have caused gas and oil prices to rise massively everywhere, including in the US.

The rise in the price of petrol will play a serious role in upcoming US elections, Woertz pointed out. Elections for the US Congress are slated for November this year.

"Increased energy prices are a gift to [Biden's] opposition," Woertz said. "That's why he is so interested in getting Saudi Arabia to increase production volumes."

View of the residential buildings damaged by a missile strike, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, sanctions on Russia have resulted in price rises at petrol pumps everywhereImage: State Emergency Service of Ukraine/REUTERS

In June, the member states of OPEC+ — the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries plus several others, which includes Saudi Arabia and also Russia — agreed to increase production, raising output by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August. But this was according to previous plans.

And even if it wanted to, it's hard to know whether Saudi Arabia could do what President Biden wants. While oil prices were low during the pandemic, the country experienced budget shortfalls, said Woertz. "So these price increases are an economic necessity from the kingdom's point of view."

Less influence

As he makes this all-important visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden will also have taken note of the US' waning influence in the Middle East. Several US administrations, including that of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, have tried to pull back from the region and the Americans are no longer the power brokers they once were.

Countries like Saudi Arabia now see other nations as potential partners. For example, the Chinese are helping the Saudis develop ballistic missiles and the Russians are helping them to build nuclear reactors.

At the same time though, the US remains Saudi Arabia's most important partner when it comes to security and as an April report from the European Council on Foreign Relations pointed out, the US presence in the Middle East still dwarfs that of other players.

Saudi Arabia is also the US' biggest customer for weapons, accounting for about 24% of all US arms sales between 2016 and 2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Still, the February 2021 ban imposed by the Biden administration, due to the war in neighboring Yemen, is likely to have weakened Saudi confidence in the US as a reliable partner, Woertz said.

"The Saudis have also seen that the US has been very restrained in its response to Iranian attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure," he continued. "From Riyadh's perspective, China or Russia cannot fully substitute the Saudi security partnership with the US. But Saudi Arabia is certainly trying to diversify its portfolio."

Workers fix the damage in the Aramco's Khurais oil field, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, after it was hit during Sept. 14 attack.
The Houthis, fighting Saudi Arabia in Yemen, have directed missiles against Saudi oil infrastructureImage: Amr Nabil/AP Photo/picture alliance

There's also something else that may hamper the US' attempts to re-calibrate its relationship with Saudi Arabia, and that is the fact that it is a democracy.

Some of the countries the US supports in the Middle East are certainly not democracies. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are both monarchies. Their rulers do not brook political dissent.

Lessons from Arab Spring

The so-called Arab Spring protests that began in 2011 have shown friends of the US how the Americans might react to calls for leadership systems that are other than authoritarian.

The US simply stood by while Hosni Mubarak, the authoritarian leader of Egypt, whom the US had supported for several decades, was forced out of power by popular protests. Meanwhile, the Russians stood by their ally, Syria's President Bashar Assad.

The region's autocratic rulers are likely to have watched and learned from this and there is no doubt that their conclusions influence the decisions they are making about international relationships today.

Biden is also in a popularity contest with the Russian leader Vladimir Putin that he cannot win, other observers said.

"There are two main aspects of the Putin regime that, together with a strong anti-Western attitude, make him popular with Arab audiences: The personalization of power and a strong rejection of political and social liberalism," Naseef Naeem, a German expert on the Middle East, wrote in the German magazine Zenith earlier this year.

The way Putin behaves corresponds to Arab autocrats' ideas of how to rule a country, Naeem argued.

All of these issues are things the US president will have to deal with, both during this week's visit to Saudi Arabia and in the future.

This story was adapted from German.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East