The case for and against Biden visiting Saudi Arabia

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic National Committee’s “Back on Track” drive-in car rally to celebrate the president’s 100th day in office at the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth, Georgia, U.S., April 29, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

“We do not believe that dictators should be invited,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing. She was referring to the U.S. decision not to include the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua at the Summit of Americas, hosted in Los Angeles last week. The absence of these left-leaning autocrats led to a de facto boycott of the proceedings by a number of other prominent hemispheric politicians, including the Mexican president. But the Biden administration, which has from its first day in office cast itself as a global champion of democracy, stuck to its stated principles.

Fast forward a week and Jean-Pierre delivered a rather different statement. She confirmed Tuesday that President Joe Biden will embark of a four-day trip to the Middle East in the middle of July that would include a stop in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on the invitation of King Salman, where Biden will also meet leaders of eight other Arab countries. Biden “looks forward to this important visit to Saudi Arabia, which has been a strategic partner of the United States for nearly eight decades,” Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

There’s nothing particularly new or startling about the United States maintaining double standards in its approach to international politics. But the White House’s outreach to Riyadh has provoked a fair amount of whiplash in Washington. After all, on the campaign trail, Biden pledged to make the kingdom a “pariah” because of its grim human rights record; his campaign spokesman lambasted the Trump administration’s habit of “giving blank checks to dictators and authoritarians around the world.”

Once in power, Biden put ties with the Saudis in deep freeze. His administration suspended weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, an act of tacit disapproval of the way the Gulf monarchies had conducted the ruinous war in Yemen. And he shunned contact with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence has linked with the plot that led to the abduction and grisly murder of Saudi dissident (and Post contributor) Jamal Khashoggi.

That was then – whatever tough-minded, values-driven approach the Biden administration took after taking office has now melted away. The arm deals were already moved through last year. A flurry of senior U.S. officials have called on Riyadh in recent months, not least as Biden’s approval ratings keep dropping amid rampant inflation and a surge in oil prices. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has somewhat moderated its positions, mending fences with neighbor Qatar and stepping up negotiations with Yemen’s Houthi rebels after acceding to a new U.N.-brokered truce this year. When Biden goes to Saudi Arabia, he is almost certain to meet the crown prince, who, after all, may rule the kingdom for decades to come.

That encounter will underscore, as The Post’s David Ignatius put it, how Prince Mohammed simply “got away with it.” The Post’s editorial board urged Biden to use the moment to speak publicly about Saudi rights abuses and call for the release of a number of de facto political prisoners in Saudi jails. An open letter from a coalition of rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Project for Middle East Democracy, declared that “a visit by the U.S. president . . . should not come without tangible progress to alleviate some of the most egregious rights violations.”

But the White House in its recent messaging has said next to nothing about its political differences with Riyadh. Instead, the Biden administration appears to be taking a realpolitik turn, aiming for a “reset” with a historic ally at a time of geopolitical turbulence.

The war in Ukraine and the rise in global oil prices have only underscored oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical centrality. U.S. attempts to return Iran to compliance with the nuclear deal wrecked by the Trump administration are foundering and Biden will need to work more closely with Riyadh and its Arab allies in preparing for a spike in tensions with Tehran. The Middle East Institute’s Brian Katulis described next month’s trip as a necessary “doubling down on the effort to put diplomacy first in the Middle East and deepen America’s extensive network of partnerships across the region.”

“Like it or not, Saudi Arabia remains the second-largest oil-producing country on planet Earth and a key player in the global economy – even more so since the war in Ukraine helped send energy prices soaring,” wrote Andrew Exum, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration. He added: “Biden, for his part, is sacrificing his values today in the interests of something we haven’t seen much of in the past two decades: realism.”

Other analysts argued that shunning the Saudis would only be counterproductive. “For Biden, the core strategic interest that must be addressed is ensuring that Saudi Arabia continues to orient its policies toward the United States, rather than hedge its bets by leaning toward Russia and China,” wrote Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Yet other experts contend that Riyadh doesn’t have as much leverage as some in Washington believe it does. Former CIA official Douglas London wrote that, no matter Prince Mohammed’s irritation with Western censure, “there’s no evidence” that he “is prepared to incur the enormous costs of converting the kingdom’s well-integrated and U.S.-dependent military infrastructure over to Russian (or Chinese) weapons systems.”

There are also real questions about how much Saudi Arabia can actually do to bring down prices at the pump in the United States. “The thing is, there isn’t much more oil in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to really significantly change the market,” Daniel Yergin, energy expert and vice chairman at S&P Global Inc., said in a recent Bloomberg News television interview. “The supply situation is so razor thin.”

And more broadly, there are doubts over the political dividends that Biden can secure on his trip: He is unlikely to preside over the settling of a meaningful peace in Yemen, will only be pushing along his predecessor’s agenda by nudging the Saudis and Israelis toward full normalization and faces potential humiliation in greeting a Saudi crown prince he once vowed to hold fully accountable.

“If he follows through on his plans to visit Riyadh, Biden will be making a bad deal: exchanging near-certain reputational damage for the mere possibility of modest triumphs,” wrote Dalia Dassa Kaye in Foreign Affairs. “It is a visit that should never have been planned.”



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