President Joe Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia next month, the White House said on Tuesday, making him America’s latest leader to affirm the historic quid pro quo with the kingdom.
But, although Biden’s plan has clear benefits for the Saudis, there’s little chance the high-profile visit will deliver much for the struggling president or for the U.S.
The Saudis have limited influence over most Americans’ top concern: inflation. Despite the conventional wisdom that the oil-rich nation can lower the cost of gas by increasing supply, energy experts say Saudi Arabia cannot quickly reduce the price at the pump. Though U.S. officials hope to bolster ties between the kingdom and fellow American partner Israel, progress toward Saudi-Israel cooperation is likely to be limited. And a visit is unlikely to quash the Saudis’ interest in friendlier relations with Russia and China, a source of alarm in Washington.
“I see [Biden’s trip] as highly risky with an uncertain payoff,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, an adjunct political scientist at the Rand Corp. think tank.
The planning and announcement of the visit are already a triumph for Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Biden has now publicly reneged on his promise to “make them pay the price” for misconduct such as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which U.S. intelligence blamed on the prince. Instead, Biden has offered a gentler touch ― securing little progress on accountability for Khashoggi’s killers or human rights broadly while giving the Saudis what they most wanted.
Biden allies expressed alarm on Tuesday over Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia.
The crown prince’s “blood stain has not been cleansed,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told CNN. “I get it that circumstances change. But what’s the fundamental issue in the world right now? It’s the authoritarians.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told CNN he has “real worries about patching up relationships with the crown prince absent some real commitments for justice... in Saudi Arabia.”
The visit is the latest in a string of disappointments for key lawmakers and activists who say Biden has relinquished any leverage he once had over the Saudis. At the start of his presidency, Biden challenged the assumption that Saudi Arabia had largely unconditional support from Washington. But instead of demanding Saudi leaders respond to U.S. concerns in exchange for restoring the strategic relationship between the two countries, Biden began a pattern of making concessions to Saudi priorities.
Earlier this month, six Democratic chairs of key House committees urged Biden in a letter to “recalibrate” U.S.-Saudi relations by pressing the kingdom to end oil market deals with Russia, ease its crackdown on dissidents, pull back from China and prioritize peace in Yemen, where the Saudis have waged a brutal military campaign since 2015.
But it may be difficult for Biden to advance any of those priorities when the Saudis feel they can define the terms of engagement.
Biden is headed to the kingdom to attend a meeting of regional leaders and will discuss the Yemen war and human rights, among other issues, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, emphasizing the president was invited by Saudi King Salman.
A statement from the Saudi Embassy in Washington offered a different picture, saying the president is visiting to “enhance” U.S.-Saudi ties and that he will meet with the crown prince, known as MBS, while presenting the regional summit as an afterthought.
“There’s no way to get around the fact that if it is in Riyadh, it is on his terms ― it is what MBS wants,” Kaye said.
The Oil Factor
As Biden faces domestic criticism over domestic gas prices, courting the world’s largest crude oil exporter could boost the impression that he is trying to address Americans’ frustration.
Yet even in the best-case scenario for the president ― if the Saudis agree to expand production even beyond their latest pledge to do so, earlier this month ― he has little hope of denting global oil prices, industry analysts say.
Traders, whose views ultimately shape prices, have been anticipating increases in production from the Saudis and their allies in the global oil cartel OPEC+. Meanwhile, supply is expected to plummet later in the year as the full effect of Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia sets in, potentially removing up to 3 million barrels of Russian oil per day from the market.
“There is no way that Saudi Arabia has the ability to produce as much oil as the world has lost because of the Russian embargo, and no country has that ability,” Robert Weiner of George Washington University recently told The Hill.
Biden has downplayed the perception that his trip is related to gas prices, telling reporters on June 12 that “the commitments from the Saudis don’t relate to anything having to do with energy .... It has to do with much larger issues than having to do with the energy piece.”
A Saudi oil processing facility near the city of Dammam, pictured in 2019. (Photo: Associated Press)
If success on oil is off the table for Biden, his team could struggle to present Americans with a clear win from the trip. The various proposals that U.S. officials are working on, like a Saudi-Egypt-Israel deal on the little-known Red Sea islands, are unlikely to draw the same level of attention.
For Saudi Arabia, however, a broader agenda is ideal. Its leaders view the trip as a way to move past squabbling and ensure U.S.-Saudi collaboration on many fronts for decades to come.
“The Saudis want to discuss a strategic framework for cooperation ... looking at things holistically. Biden might have preferred more of a pick-and-choose menu option but I think that’s off the table: if Biden wants to do energy, he has to do politics, and that has become clear to the administration,” said Ayhem Kamel, the head of the Middle East and North Africa research team at the Eurasia Group consultancy.
In 2019, as skeptics of the Saudis gained ground in Congress and Biden and other opponents of then-President Donald Trump highlighted his ties to the kingdom, “the U.S. had more leverage,” Kamel said.
“The 2022 perspective is one where the Saudis have more leverage,” he added.
Wading Back Into Middle East Quandaries
In a recent Foreign Affairs article that was widely shared in policy circles, Kaye called Biden’s then-rumored trip a “transparent compromise on principles” and argued the president must prove a visit would deliver “anything of lasting value to U.S. interests.”
She told HuffPost she has little faith that will happen.
“The shift is more about, ‘We’re going to show we’re the grown-ups and when interests are at stake, we’re willing to adjust,’” Kaye said. “It’s a very dominant way of thinking among many in Washington. My own view is partnerships go both ways.”
She worries that the Saudis will see Biden’s decision to visit the country as another signal that they need not worry about U.S. pushback if they pursue risky policies.
Saudi Arabia could ratchet up tensions with its regional rival Iran, for instance, by pulling away from talks with the Iranians or torpedoing negotiations with a pro-Iran militia in Yemen, where a recently extended truce remains precarious. Alternately, Biden’s embrace of the Saudis could spur the Iranians or their partners to hit U.S. or allied targets.
“This is a volatile environment,” Kaye said, citing fading hopes of restoring the Iranian nuclear deal. “If there’s more military escalation, that further disrupts global oil supplies, worsening inflation.”
Another concern is that the crown prince and his team could take the visit as an indication that Biden no longer cares about the Khashoggi case or the Saudis’ ongoing assault on perceived enemies, from women’s rights activists to the children of a former Saudi intelligence chief.
“Efforts to repair the U.S. relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia without a genuine commitment to prioritize human rights are not only a betrayal of your campaign promises, but will likely embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” 13 rights groups wrote in a June 9 statement asking Biden to set preconditions for a meeting with bin Salman.
Fundamentally, Biden’s team and its critics disagree over how U.S.-Saudi policy must change ― whether the goal is to restore a friendly tone or to address long-standing concerns over both the kingdom’s choices and how the U.S. has handled Riyadh.
Administration officials view the cease-fire in Yemen as a key success, for example, but they have said little about evidence that the U.S. failed to examine the role of American weapons in killing civilians in the war there or revelations about ongoing American assistance that would shape any renewed fighting.
Biden largely avoided Middle East issues in his first year in office and tasked his top national security lieutenants to focus elsewhere while lower-level staff took the lead. That strategy is no longer viable.
“The idea that Saudi and the Gulf countries are ... on the margins or no longer important from a U.S. perspective, I think that has become more difficult given developments and the Russia-Ukraine war,” Kamel said.
For now, Biden has made a clear choice about how he will respond to that shift: by leaning on tradition, whether it pays off or not.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.