Author : Navdeep Suri

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 12, 2022 Updated 17 Hours ago
As high oil prices hit consumers, President Biden is compelled to change his stance toward Saudi Arabia and rekindle relations.
The reluctant pilgrim: President Biden visits Saudi Arabia The annual Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia ends on 12 July 2022 and the festivities around Eid al-Adha would have barely subsided when Jeddah gets ready to receive a reluctant pilgrim from the West: President Biden. There is a distinct awkwardness surrounding President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia. He clearly doesn’t want to go and he certainly harbours no burning desire to meet the Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). The reasons aren’t hard to fathom. During his election campaign, Candidate Biden clearly didn’t think much of the tight embrace between the then-President, Donald Trump and MbS. Riyadh was carefully chosen as the destination for Trump’s first overseas tour in May 2017. Hints of a 10-year, US$350 billion arms deal were in the air. And son-in-law Jared Kushner was on good terms with MBS and his team. It came as no surprise that the Trump administration was muted in its criticism of the Saudis over the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Candidate Biden vowed to change that, saying he would make the Saudis “pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are" over Khashoggi’s killings. A focus on human rights was back on the agenda and once elected, Biden didn’t just release a classified report that pinned the blame for the killing on MbS. He refused to deal with MbS even as his administration rebooted the stalled JCPOA negotiations with Iran. Secretary of State Blinken also moved quickly to revoke the designation of the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in February 2021. In the eyes of the Saudis (and the Emiratis), this only emboldened the Houthis to target oil and other civilian facilities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with drone and missile strikes.

The lukewarm US response to Houthi drone strikes against ADNOC facilities in the UAE in January 2022 and against a Saudi ARAMCO refinery in March 2022 also sent a chilling message that the US security umbrella over the Gulf didn’t really count for much.

There was also the larger issue of a US pivot towards the Asia Pacific amidst its strategic focus on China. This did not necessarily mean a zero-sum game involving a parallel US retrenchment from West Asia but the perception that the energy-independent US no longer had a vital interest in the region certainly bolstered this viewpoint. The lukewarm US response to Houthi drone strikes against ADNOC facilities in the UAE in January 2022 and against a Saudi ARAMCO refinery in March 2022 also sent a chilling message that the US security umbrella over the Gulf didn’t really count for much. The Saudis and Emiratis responded with something quite unprecedented. As the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia drove oil prices to US$ 130 per barrel, President Biden attempted to speak with MbS in Riyadh and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi because the two Gulf states have the largest standby capacity to increase oil production and calm the oil markets. But Biden was rebuffed and the calls did not materialise. The fact that both leaders spoke with President Putin during the same week in March only underscored their unhappiness the with Biden administration. Meanwhile, some of the key states in the region have also moved to address issues that had bedevilled their own bilateral ties. A Saudi initiative brought the dispute between Qatar and the Arab Quartet comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain to some kind of closure. Turkey, motivated in part by its own economic woes, has also buried the hatchet with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and President Erdogan has been hosted by both nations. An effort is also underway to bring Syria back into the Arab fold and President Bashar Assad’s visit to Abu Dhabi in March 2022 was an indication. These have addressed some of the more recent fault lines in the region even as the two older ones—Iran and the Palestine issue—remain. Iraq has been trying to play a helpful role and also regain its own stature in the Gulf by mediating mid-level talks between Saudi and Iranian officials. However, a lot depends on the fate of the JCPOA talks and some kind of resolution on the status of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. But the Palestinian issue remains in limbo and it will be interesting to see if Biden’s visit imparts some life to it. Given this backdrop, what has motivated Biden to visit Saudi Arabia? It certainly isn’t aimed at shoring up his popularity because one recent Nielsen-Scarborough opinion poll showed that less than a quarter of respondents supported the visit. Those figures may be the impetus behind the President’s unusual op-ed in The Washington Post on 10 July titled ‘Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia?’ where he explains part of the rationale: “From the start, my aim was to reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years. Today, Saudi Arabia has helped to restore unity among the six countries of Gulf Cooperation Council, has fully supported the truce in Yemen and is now working with my experts to help stabilize oil markets with other OPEC producers.”

Turkey, motivated in part by its own economic woes, has also buried the hatchet with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and President Erdogan has been hosted by both nations.

That last element is particularly crucial in the context of the US economy. With oil prices above US$5 per gallon at the pump, inflation at 8.6 percent in May and rising further, and the Federal Reserve declaring its intention to fight inflation with a succession of interest rate hikes, the economic outlook is bleak as the Democrats gear up for mid-term polls in November. Losing even a couple of seats in the Senate could deal a savage blow to the Biden administration’s legislative agenda. And therefore, the hope the reluctant pilgrimage to Jeddah for a meeting with MBS and the heads of other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council might deliver some relief even as it allows an opportunity to reset relations between Washington and Riyadh.

The GCC, Israel, and the US security umbrella

But the visit isn’t just about oil prices and the US economy. At least three other elements would be high on the agenda. As the JCPOA talks in Vienna inch towards some kind of denouement, the US would be keen to get the GCC member states on board. This is important because the absence of consultation by the Obama administration had led states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia to deploy their considerable lobbying influence in Washington to fiercely oppose the deal. The results were there to see as soon as the Trump administration took charge. The second aspect might seem a bit counter-intuitive but the visit to Riyadh would please Israel and may therefore have a positive effect on the Jewish community’s view of the Biden Administration. It is a strange convergence of interests but after the success of the Abraham Accords in normalising ties between Israel and the UAE, the focus is on Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has given several indications that it is not averse to the idea but would wait for the right time and conditions. Biden’s talks in Israel and his direct flight from Jerusalem to Jeddah might just provide some momentum.

The second aspect might seem a bit counter-intuitive but the visit to Riyadh would please Israel and may therefore have a positive effect on the Jewish community’s view of the Biden Administration.

And finally, the Saudis would expect a firm US response to their oft-stated security concerns. Some analysts have floated ideas of a NATO-style security guarantee to keep China and Russia at bay. That might be too steep a mountain to climb at this juncture. Neither does the current situation allow the kind of black and white position enunciated in the Carter Doctrine in 1980 when NSA Zbigniew Brzezinski could baldly state, “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” The challenge for the US today is not the Soviet army in Afghanistan but the steady economic and strategic inroads being made by China in the Gulf. For states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, the challenge lies in the unconventional nature of the threat posed by Iran through the use of proxies who deploy missiles and UCAVs and provide plausible deniability. It would be interesting to see if the Biden visit tries to address these issues. From an Indian perspective, the Israel leg of the visit will also include the first virtual summit of the new West Asia Quad which is now dubbed I2U2. This follows up on the ministerial level virtual summit last October and creates a format that could offer new economic and other opportunities for India. Meanwhile, the focus will remain on the pilgrim’s progress.
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