Biden bets there’s more to be gained by courting the Saudis

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Washington (AFP) – Turning around while visiting Saudi Arabia, US President Joe Biden is betting he has more to gain than lose even as rights campaigners accuse him of selling his soul for oil.

Biden joins eight decades of US presidents who have all in due course courted the oil-rich kingdom, which has diligently cultivated ties in Washington despite repeated crises including the 9/11 attacks, carried out mostly by Saudis.

The White House announced on Tuesday that Biden would travel to a regional summit in Jeddah next month and meet with Saudi leaders – whom he promised to treat as a candidate as “the pariah that they are” – including the crown prince. Mohammed bin Salman.

According to US intelligence, “MBS” ordered the 2018 murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Upon taking office, Biden declassified Khashoggi’s findings and promised to “recalibrate” the relationship, including reducing support for the Saudis’ devastating air campaign in Yemen.

Administration officials said they have recently seen the Saudis address U.S. concerns, including backing a fragile truce in Yemen, where the Riyadh-backed government is fighting Iran-linked Houthi rebels, and taking tentative steps to improve relations with US ally Israel.

In a surprise, the Saudis earlier this month led an agreement among oil producers to increase production, a relief for Biden whose polling numbers were beaten by soaring gas prices – which, however, have been steadily increasing.

Dan Shapiro, who served as ambassador to Israel when Biden was vice president, noted that the 36-year-old crown prince is likely to be Saudi’s top leader for years to come.

The visit comes as China increasingly turns to Arab Gulf countries, which have mostly pushed back against US efforts to isolate Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Osaka in 2019 Youri KADOBNOV POOL/AFP/File

“President Biden correctly concluded that the United States has more strategic interests that would be served by stabilizing the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” said Shapiro, now at the Atlantic Council.

“It is essential that as we deal with challenges such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s increasingly assertive position globally, partners – particularly in the Middle East , especially energy-producing countries – align with US interests.”

“Gone with Murder”

The trip marks a White House calculation that it is worth standing up to criticism from lawmakers, mostly from his Democratic Party, and activists who say he is jeopardizing his own claims to place human rights central to its foreign policy.

Last week, Biden saw his Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles marred by a boycott by the Mexican leader over the president’s refusal to invite autocratic leaders.

Andrea Prasow, executive director of The Freedom Initiative which supports political prisoners in the Arab world, said the families of the detainees felt Biden “completely abandoned them in favor of lower oil prices.”

Turkish writer Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of slain Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to her portrait on the National Mall in Washington on the October 2021 anniversary of her assassination
Turkish writer Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of slain Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to her portrait on the National Mall in Washington on the October 2021 anniversary of her assassination Nicolas Kamm AFP/File

She said Biden should have solicited undertakings from MBS, such as the release of prisoners, in exchange for his visit.

The message “is pretty clear – MBS can and literally did get away with murder,” she said.

Even though Biden speaks privately about human rights, the “public message to MBS himself, to everyone in Saudi Arabia and everyone in the United States and around the world, is that this kind of egregious human rights conduct has no consequences”.

Some sort of apology?

MBS had a much friendlier relationship with former President Donald Trump, whose son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly chatted with the prince on WhatsApp.

The former president defended his light-hearted response to Khashoggi’s murder by saying Saudi Arabia boosted the US economy through arms purchases.

US President Joe Biden speaks at an AFL-CIO convention in Philadelphia
US President Joe Biden speaks at an AFL-CIO convention in Philadelphia Nicolas KammAFP

Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter that MBS is “working to build peace and prosperity for his country” and criticized Biden for sidelining him.

Experts said the Crown Prince was looking to get the relationship back to business as usual.

Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said MBS was personally offended by Biden, a critic of Saudi Arabia even before Khashoggi’s murder.

“The main thing MBS wants from a visit from Biden is not necessarily a breakthrough in military or defense cooperation, but political recognition and some sort of apology for ignoring him,” she said. declared.

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