[Neil Quillam is Associate Fellow, Middle East & North Africa Programme at Chatham House and Alice Gower is Director of Security at Azure Security.]
There was great interest and much speculation about the outcome of US President Joe Biden’s July visit to Saudi Arabia. Once he went from “will he, won’t he” to “yes he will”, it gave rise to a cottage industry of opinion pieces, analysis and round tables. Much has been made of Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) reconciling with the United States, with Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords. Aramco is increasing its oil production, Israeli security is gaining primacy, and the United States is leading the creation of a so-called Middle East Defense Alliance, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Israel — and, more importantly, what the United States and Saudi Arabia are “asking” of each other perhaps.
In the end, the outcome of the meeting was modest, but critical: it restored a direct line between the White House and Saudi leaders (read MBS). This was most likely the optimal outcome for this administration – not an overhaul or resetting of the relationship, but a recognition that functionality must prevail and therefore communication at the top has been restored.
The US-Saudi relationship has never been in jeopardy
Contrary to public perception, the fundamental relationship was never really in jeopardy. Admittedly, some elements have been put under pressure, particularly due to respective national political considerations and personal tensions over difficult issues such as human rights, freedom of the press, the conflict in Yemen and the murder of Khashoggi. that have taken place on the international scene.
As is the case with all new incumbents, Biden’s initial goal was to stand out — by some distance — from his predecessor, both to his international and domestic audiences. His particular mission was to return the United States to the more stable and reliable foreign policy on which the world had come to depend. However, in the Middle East, his challenge was different. Saudi leaders had fully embraced former President Trump, while in the West political observers had waited in vain for the crown prince’s brash style to be tamed by the weight of office. But MBS has never been socialized by his position of power, leaving the new Biden administration to switch gears and, in the eyes of Democrats, course-correct towards a more traditional approach to the Kingdom.
Biden’s assertive stance toward Riyadh — from campaign to stepping into the Oval Office — was more about addressing Democrats’ concerns that Trump was turning a blind eye to behavior viewed as morally questionable by the US political left than it was. to chastise the Gulf State. His overriding priority was to show his moral strength to his party, and he made a series of decisions that put him on a collision course with MBS. His early announcement that he would only speak to King Salman, citing protocol, was a clear snub to MBS. Biden intended to deliver a message: We’re going to play by the rules, and we expect you to too. In February 2021, the White House did two things. First, he published the CIA report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. The report revealed that MBS personally ordered the killing of Saudi journalist Adnan Khashoggi. Second, the White House halted US support for offensive operations in Yemen and suspended specific arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
MBS plays hardball
In response, MBS took his own hard line, which aimed to show both the Saudi population and international leaders that Riyadh’s policies will not be determined, or unduly influenced, by the United States. He was striking and his sentiment was widely shared by many Saudis and others in the Gulf. MBS was the personification of the feeling that Washington no longer decides in the Middle East. With the youth advantage, MBS basically shrugged at Biden and said “whatever” as evidenced by his interview with Atlantic in March.
The calculation of the United States towards Saudi Arabia changed when Russia invaded Ukraine. The United States and its European allies sought to respond to Russian aggression even as oil prices soared to around $140 a barrel. Rising oil prices left Biden no choice but to contact MBS directly after national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s attempts failed. Sullivan was unable to persuade Saudi leaders to increase production and offset crippling price hikes.
MBS’ high-profile refusal to answer Biden’s “oil call” in March was a pivotal moment. This not only inflamed personal animosity between Biden and MBS, but it also made both realize the need to cut things back and work together for the sake of their mutual national interests. With a combination of high oil prices and being celebrated by French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, MBS must have felt justified that Biden wanted to visit. World events had forced another shift in the White House: Biden succumbed to realpolitik and met MBS in Riyadh, punch and all.
But amid public bickering and personal strains, the multifaceted dimensions of the bilateral relationship — defence, trade, finance and investment — have continued apace, and in both directions. The volume of trade between the two countries reached almost $25 billion in 2021, an increase of 22% compared to 2020. There has been a significant increase in the Kingdom’s non-oil exports to the United States. Now Biden is slowly thawing on defense sales, whispering that the restrictions could be revisited in the near future. Some might point to the need for more oil on the market to combat high gasoline prices as the driving force, while others note a broader strategy to push Arab-Israeli security cooperation to counter the Iran, especially now that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) seems dead. Earlier this year, the United States authorized the sale of Patriot missiles and anti-ballistic defense systems to Riyadh following Houthi attacks on the Kingdom. If the fragile but still effective truce recently extended in Yemen becomes a permanent ceasefire, the scope of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia could widen further.
While the Biden-MBS meeting attracted media attention and many analysts, including your authors, rolled their eyes at the suggestion of another so-called NATO Arab project, the Jeddah visit traced some avenues towards the development of a multilateral framework for regional security. Instead of focusing on the more difficult security elements such as air and missile defense, the United States and Saudi Arabia will seek to onboard “Negev 9” members by engaging with them at times, different paces and spaces on softer security issues in an attempt to work towards greater multilateral security integration, but with no specific date in mind.
In doing so, the Biden administration is continuing a longstanding tradition of trying to develop a regional security architecture that incorporates Israel — following the success of the Abraham Accords — and advances Israel’s long road to normalizing relations. with the Arab States. If successful, this would, on the one hand, allow the United States to remain at the heart of regional security and, on the other hand, reduce its level of engagement, as regional partners increasingly share the burden. .
There is no doubt that the United States would like to spend less time and energy helping to manage regional affairs, especially given its focus on China. His pursuit of a new regional security architecture bringing together “like-minded” states to work collaboratively is a long-term project that could benefit from the catalyst of a technological leap that could spur faster and more comprehensive cooperation. But there is no doubt that its success will only be realized if Washington shows unwavering commitment and consistently reassures regional leaders that they are appreciated and will never be forgotten. The punch with MBS may have stuck in the hollow of Biden’s throat, but he knew it was a necessary step to not only open critical communications between the White House and Saudi leaders, but also to serve milestone in galvanizing regional partners in a security framework to meet the challenge of Iran in a post-JCPOA era.
[Arab Digest first published this article and is a partner of Fair Observer.]
Vladimir Putin is bringing the Middle East and North Africa to the brink of tragic catastrophe
Arab Digest editor William Law’s guest this week is Tarek Megerisi of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Megerisi analyzes the crisis that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine triggered in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It calls for new thinking and urgent action by Europe and international bodies, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to avert a human catastrophe in the MENA region. The IMF, international bodies and Europe have little time to avoid this catastrophe, which could be of unimaginable magnitude.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.