President Joe Biden has reluctantly been drawn into closer ties with Saudi Arabia’s king-in-waiting, forced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to rethink its standoffish approach as the U.S. struggles to curb rising oil prices.
The problem is that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is not ready to play along.
The U.S. soft-spoken stance, described by a dozen people familiar with the debate, follows months of efforts by several senior administration officials to convince a cautious president that ignoring the de facto Saudi leader hinders U.S. foreign policy goals. The need to isolate Moscow gave a new impetus to that impulse. An official described the Russian invasion as a paradigm shift event that changed the way the U.S. views Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is the economic power of the Middle East and for many years has been a major political power in the affairs of the region and the dominant power in OPEC+-a strong alliance between the oil-exporting cartel and Russia. It is also one of America’s largest buyers of arms.
The shift is partly an acknowledgment that Biden leaned himself into a corner during his presidential campaign by calling Saudi Arabia a “pariah”, reflecting his hatred of the assassination of critic Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and a desire to step back from his predecessor’s more comfortable relationship. . Donald Trump enlisted his son -in -law Jared Kushner to work directly with MBS – as he is commonly called the prince – often excluding his own top diplomats.
Conversations with people in Riyadh and Washington illustrate the administration recognizing it must maintain a decades-long partnership that guarantees U.S. influence in the world’s major energy-exporting region and also wants to punish Prince Mohammed, 36, for his fundamental rights. record.
Three people familiar with the matter said both sides tried to arrange a call between Biden and the crown prince for the first time, but the tensions are now so deep that it will take time.
A White House National Security Council spokesman said on Monday it was “very false” that the White House made an official request for a call with the crown prince, and denied that the Saudis had rejected the president.
NSC spokeswoman Emily Horne added: “The president spoke with King Salman on February 9. In the call, they set an affirmative bilateral agenda from climate, to security, to energy cooperation. Since that important call, our team has been involved at every level. discussions on the next call at the presidential level in view of this regular and ongoing involvement. “
A U.S. official who declined to be named said the Saudis agreed to the presidential protocol of talking to his counterpart, the king. The official also said Biden was open to conversations with Prince Mohammed, noting that if the crown prince came to Rome in October during the G-20 rally, Biden would meet with him.
Biden set himself up for a serious challenge after taking office in January 2021 by promising to reorient his foreign policy away from the Middle East and make human rights a greater priority. At the time, a spokesman said his counterpart was King Salman and described the transition as a “recalibration” in the relationship.
Yet the U.S. relies on Saudi Arabia for 7% of its oil imports, an amount that won’t fluctuate much unless it drives more domestic production – something progressives within Biden’s party will oppose. Saudi Arabia is also an important regional counterweight to Iran, whose armed proxies launch almost daily attacks on U.S. allies throughout the Middle East. Iranian-backed Yemeni houthis attacked six sites in the government recently on Sunday, including several operated by national oil giant Aramco.
Biden’s cold shoulders were sorely lacking as he sought to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that would have given the Islamic Republic an oil spill without addressing such security concerns.
The Saudi view
Saudi Arabia in a statement today said it refused to take responsibility for any oil shortages in global markets as long as its energy facilities faced attacks from Iranian -backed Houthi, urging the international community to do more to secure supplies.
Now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine adds to the complexity. It has contributed to a rise in gasoline prices, which the Biden administration is eager to bring down before voters head to mid-term elections that could hand over control of Congress to Republicans.
But rebuilding a relationship will not be easy. Biden’s decision to bypass Prince Mohammed and only deal with his elderly father is seen in Riyadh as a personal insult – one that will not be forgiven overnight.
The country’s leaders also hated the attention the U.S. was giving to their small neighbor, Qatar, and complained that the U.S. only contacted when it needed help.
This time, Saudi Arabia – along with Israel and the United Arab Emirates – wants the U.S. to address long -term concerns over Iranian support for armed groups and offer lasting security guarantees before they support Biden’s efforts to oust Russian President Vladimir Putin and ease the energy market.
In a sign the message is being censored, the U.S. condemned the latest attack, with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan promising the U.S. will “fully support our partners in defending their territory.”
The U.S. has transferred a large number of Patriot anti-missile interceptors to Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, acting on urgent requests amid tensions in the relationship, according to a known official.
A U.S. official said they were holding ongoing talks on oil and the administration believed they were heading in a good place in price pressure cooperation.
In a recent interview with Atlantic, when asked if Biden misunderstood him, the crown prince replied “simply, I don’t care,” adding that “it’s up to him to think about American interests.” On the idea of isolating Saudi Arabia, he replied, “go.”
Administration officials are debating whether the statement is just a posture or a genuine shift in views by Saudi Arabia, which has built deeper ties with Russia and China as the U.S. seeks to divert attention from the region. While the relationship is growing, most officials argue that the Saudis recognize Beijing as not Washington’s successor.
A person familiar with the administration’s stance, who declined to be named, described Prince Mohammed as squeamish, a feature that shows the U.S. attitude towards important allies in times of international crisis.
“It’s not going well and it’s not going to be going well,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign policy and defense studies at the American Institute of Enterprise. “There’s a strong tendency in American foreign policy to expect others to drop what they’re doing, and immediately divert their attention to help us address whatever we’re worried about.”
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry and government communications center did not immediately respond to requests to comment on the government’s ties with the U.S. or the potential to make calls with Biden.
People familiar with the matter say the biggest detention to soften the U.S. approach is the president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Biden, according to ordinary people, is worried about retaliation in Washington, including from congressional Democrats who have denounced him as too soft, and from the Washington Post, the influential newspaper that published Khashoggi’s column.
Worries flickered that MBS was still doing things that needed condemnation. The government recently sentenced 81 people to death and civilian casualties have increased in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been bombing Houthi since they ousted the internationally recognized government in 2015.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, explaining in his call interview with Blinken, said that the U.S. diplomat “acknowledges the limitations the government faces on their opposing values and interests.”
Just as Biden may have run too hard from Saudi Arabia at the start of his service, now some in Washington worry he may be in too much of a hurry to coordinate a partner against Putin.
“It’s all good and it’s nice to argue that we need to work with bad actors against worse actors,” said Matt Duss, senior foreign policy adviser to Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders. “But we must remember that this is the same logic that led the US to consider Vladimir Putin as a partner in the War on Terror.”
–With help from Jennifer Jacobs.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)