Biden views Saudi visit as opportunity to ‘reorient’ relationship

Published July 13, 2022
ISRAELI and American flags fly at Ben Gurion airport during a rehearsal for the ceremony to welcome US President Joe Biden to Israel.—Reuters
ISRAELI and American flags fly at Ben Gurion airport during a rehearsal for the ceremony to welcome US President Joe Biden to Israel.—Reuters

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden leaves the US capital on Wednesday for four-day — July 13-16 — visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel that the US media is presenting as a victory for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

The president, however, sees his visit to Jeddah as an opportunity to “reorient” America’s relationship with the oil-rich kingdom, which is also the custodian of Islam’s holiest places.

“To reorient — not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

But Carolyn Kissane, a professor of global affairs at New York University, sees it as a clear win for Prince Salman who, she believes, seeks and will get international acceptance of his policies.

US media terms trip starting today a victory for Crown Prince MbS

“Saudi Arabia is on its way to getting what it wants and needs in Biden’s visit to the kingdom, the first visit to Saudi Arabia since the president took office,” she wrote in an opinion piece for Barron’s, a weekly news magazine published by Dow Jones & Company. “Biden, however, may only get a bit of what he needs, a boost from Saudi Arabia in the form of extra oil output, but it won’t be enough.”

Other US media outlets also link the visit to the Biden administration’s “desperate effort to convince Saudi Arabia to help ease record-high gas prices, surging amidst Russia’s war with Ukraine.”

Biden too referred to this ‘effort’ in his piece for the Post. Saudi Arabia “is now working with my experts to help stabilise oil markets with other OPEC producers,” he wrote. He acknowledged that “many disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia”, adding that “my views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank”.

In the piece, the US president also mentioned the Saudi journalist of Washington Post Jamal Khashoggi whose murder in 2018 strained his ties with Riyadh, pointing out that he had sanctioned the Saudi forces involved in the killing and banned visas for anyone found harassing dissidents abroad.

He also referred to his decision to release a US intelligence report on the murder, but did not say if he will raise the issue in his meetings with the Saudis during his visit.

US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who is accompanying the president, also issued a statement stressing that this visit was not just to Saudi Arabia as Biden would also visit Israel and the West Bank “to consult with Israeli, Palestinian, Gulf and regional partners on a range of priorities”.

The priorities, he said, included “deepening US ties across the region, regional security, support for a two-state solution, and countering shared threats, including those posed by Iran”.

In Jeddah, the president will attend “the Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council along with Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan to discuss integration efforts to support regional stability and prosperity as well as other shared interests”.

But the US media continued to point out that Biden “is expected to meet the crown prince during his trip” and he will not raise the Khashoggi murder in the meeting. The New York Times recalled that as a candidate, President Biden vowed to punish the kingdom for the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. But now he wants to rebuild relations as he seeks to lower gas prices and isolate Russia.

The newspaper also recalled that during the campaign Biden called Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah state’ but his visit would end Riyadh’s ‘pariah status’.

Other media outlets noted that Biden was now citing Saudi Arabia’s “courageous leadership” as one of the reasons for his decision to re-engage the kingdom. They credited ‘harsh realities’ for this dramatic shift in Biden’s rhetoric, adding that Biden now “seems to be practicing a form of the maxim, keep your friends close and your enemies closer”.

“Whichever MbS is, the result is a major PR win for the Saudi crown prince,” Prof Kissane wrote.

Media reports noted that “this U-turn” was not just about Saudi oil, but also about regional politics — mainly Washington’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. The reports noted that Biden was part of the Obama administration that signed the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.

Former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, but Biden and his advisers have pushed to resuscitate it. According to these reports, this policy alarmed Saudi Arabia, which has been lobbying with Israel, Egypt, Turkey and others to prevent Washington from doing so. The reports claimed that this issue would figure prominently in the Jeddah meeting.

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2022

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