When it became clear that Trump would not win a second term, there was deep consternation in Riyadh. His successor Joe Biden had been vocal in his criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (MbS) and had vowed to take a tougher stance on his human rights abuses. There were also promises that a CIA report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi would be released.
Such was the discomfort in Riyadh that MbS decided to swiftly end the blockade on Qatar that had been imposed in 2017 and drag his bewildered allies in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Manama into a reconciliation process with Doha. Qatar’s Emir Tamim was welcomed in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ula with pomp and exuberance as MbS sought to temper Qatar’s relentless media coverage of his transgressions which could further exacerbate tensions with Biden.
Joe Biden had been vocal in his criticism of MbS and had vowed to take a tougher stance on his human rights abuses.
Saudi officials also put out exaggerated statements of praise for the US President as Riyadh braced for a difficult period in bilateral relations. But Biden went on to humiliate MbS regardless by releasing a damning CIA report that concluded the Crown Prince had ordered Khashoggi’s capture and murder. He then announced that he would only communicate with King Salman as the head of state, and not the Crown Prince, even though the latter is the de facto ruler.
Biden’s disdain for MbS was so pronounced that even US policy on Yemen has centered on pressuring Riyadh instead of the Houthis who toppled the internationally recognized government in their seventh armed attempt at seizing the country by force.
Biden announced an end to US support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign. Worse for Riyadh was the withdrawal of US anti-missile installations that was then compounded by a US reluctance to deliver what the Saudis insisted were much-needed Patriot missile defense systems to counter the Houthis’ relentless targeting of key facilities within Saudi territory.
Biden has also steamrolled Riyadh in his pursuit of a new nuclear deal with Iran. Despite protestations that a deal would entrench Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, the Biden administration has insisted that allies must fall in line. Not even Tel Aviv has been able to dissuade Biden from his course. Riyadh has therefore found itself begrudgingly forced to engage in talks with Tehran knowing full well that the Iranians will cede nothing.
The deterioration in relations between Washington and Riyadh was so evident that an article entitled: “Saudi-US Relations: Divorce or Reconciliation?” was published in the kingdom’s largest domestic newspaper on September 12. The column argued that Washington was misguided in believing that it could deprioritize its relations with the kingdom and rely instead on smaller Gulf states to facilitate US interests.
Biden’s behavior has infuriated and frustrated Riyadh even as European capitals are believed to have privately expressed interest in the Crown Prince’s reforms and his Public Investment Fund. However, they have been hesitant to proceed due to reputational issues and decided to wait until the public scrutiny eases.
The view in Riyadh is that the longer Biden continues to express scorn and disrespect, the longer it will take for a constructive environment that is conducive for European capitals to move publicly.
Yet, MbS has been unable to push back against Biden due to the absence of any leverage. Instead, Riyadh has had to settle for an awkward policy of appeasement, carefully ensuring that it is not seen to be hampering Biden’s aims in the region.
Washington still needs Riyadh, and the latter remains indispensable however much Biden might wish otherwise.
That has all changed recently with the dramatic surge in oil prices. As COVID restrictions have eased globally, oil demand has soared. For the US, this means gas prices at the pump have increased around 40% since Joe Biden’s inauguration. Suddenly, his administration begins to reckon with a jarring reality: Washington still needs Riyadh, and the latter remains indispensable however much Biden might wish otherwise.
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The shift in the Biden administration’s attitudes became more evident when Biden sent his National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to Riyadh in September. In October, Biden’s Climate Adviser John Kerry publicly praised MbS’s hosting of a Climate Change summit after personally meeting with the Crown Prince.
Yet, these visits appeared to do little to abate the disgruntlement and anger in Riyadh at Biden’s cold shoulder. An emboldened MbS refused to boost production in order to bring down oil prices. Biden’s frustration with MbS’s stubbornness was clear when he remarked at the G20 summit in Rome that: “The idea that Russia and Saudi Arabia and other major producers are not going to pump more oil so people can have gasoline to get to and from work, for example, is not right.”
Biden is aware of what MbS wants in exchange for concessions on oil production. In late October, Biden stated frankly in a townhall meeting that “there are a lot of Middle Eastern folks who want to talk to me… I’m not sure I’m going to talk to them.” Yet, in the same statement, Biden also acknowledged that negotiations were ongoing on the issues of oil prices and production output, thereby implicitly confirming the US President’s active attempts to convince the Crown Prince to raise production.
Biden appears adamant not to communicate directly with MbS as he is wary of alienating his voter base and his party.
Biden appears adamant that he does not want to communicate directly with MbS as he is wary of alienating many in his voter base and his own party. Indeed, the Democrats feel strongly about US relations with human rights abusers and are keen not to draw any comparisons between their party and the former Trump administration.
Biden’s decision not to sanction MbS after the release of the CIA report that indicted the Crown Prince in the murder of Khashoggi was evidence of Biden’s attempt to tread the fine line between maintaining a working relationship with US allies while upholding the image of the US as a defender of human rights.
Such is Biden’s insistence on not being seen to publicly associate with MbS that in late November, he announced that the US would release some of its domestic oil reserves into the market. In other words, Biden would rather tap into US reserves than yield to MbS’ demand for a direct conversation. However, the impact of these reserves on oil prices has been negligible and emphasizes just how important MbS remains to the oil markets and, for the time being, to the US economy.
From MbS’s perspective, Biden is clearly buckling as he continues to send high-level delegations to Riyadh that are pleading for Saudi assistance on oil prices and output. More importantly, Biden’s own Western allies are less inclined to follow his lead on isolating MbS.
The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent his Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to Riyadh to convey UK sentiments that they were prepared to engage with the Crown Prince on bilateral issues relating to investments and security.
French President Emmanuel Macron became the first Western Head of State since the Khashoggi murder to visit MbS personally in Riyadh on a state visit as he sought to capitalize on regional discontent with Washington to advance French interests.
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A beleaguered Turkish President Erdogan is chasing reconciliation and exerting strenuous efforts to woo a cold Riyadh into a rapprochement that might help enhance market sentiment towards Turkey. Ties with Oman are improving rapidly while Qatar appears very receptive to expanding ties.
Lebanon’s minister for media George Kardahi, who criticized Saudi Arabia’s conduct in the war in Yemen, has been forced to resign and MbS has succeeded in rallying Gulf states to his side on the issue.
MbS’ stubbornness is not solely due to a desire to spite Biden for his open antagonism.
Yet, MbS’ stubbornness is not solely due to a desire to spite Biden for his open antagonism. There is also a sense in Riyadh that the kingdom has been forced far too many times over the last decade to sacrifice its economic and oil interests for the sake of an insincere ally in Washington. US attempts to advance its shale oil industry in the past, and its propensity to take advantage of OPEC production cuts by pumping more of its own oil to incrementally acquire more market share have incensed OPEC states.
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Moreover, there are legitimate economic arguments for Saudi Arabia to resist the pressure from Biden. Riyadh is seeking to rapidly diversify its economy by introducing a number of mega projects that require significant financing. With the stuttering in foreign direct investment caused predominantly by reputational damage and exacerbated by Biden himself, the rise in oil price provides much-needed relief to the kingdom’s treasury and restores to some extent a financial buffer that has been battered over the past decade by low oil prices.
With the windfall from the surge in oil prices, there is the potential to cushion the more painful aspects of diversification that are already causing concern among ordinary Saudis, and to soften the blow from the emergency measures taken in 2020 that included large amounts of borrowing and tax hikes to counter the crash in oil price.
Still, this does not mean MbS is averse to increasing production to ease Biden’s economic woes. However, the Crown Prince’s condition is clear. MbS wants Biden to publicly acknowledge and recognize him and speak to him personally for the world to see. If the history of US pragmatism suggests anything, it is that this could well happen soon regardless of how Biden might feel about it. The US President may soon conclude that elections are inevitably won over the economy, and never over foreign policy.