By Kabir Taneja
Rumor mills in Washington D.C. are abuzz that US President Joe Biden is planning to put his long-standing policy of not directly engaging with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), aside and visit Riyadh. In the run-up to the 2019 United States (US) election campaign, Biden had called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in the aftermath of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However, in 2022, because of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the American president is being forced to play a hand that he had avoided for a long time.
Overall, beyond the US–Saudi ties, the Biden administration’s relations with the wider Middle East region have been fractious at best. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi’s small yet powerful neighbour, had recently refused to meet top US officials to protest the US’s ambivalence on Houthi terror attacks on Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. Overall, from a distance, the US approach to its engagements with the Gulf seems to be in a chaotic bind despite being under the watchful eyes of the capable Middle East adviser to the White House, Brett McGurk. As far as its Gulf partners are concerned, a renewed push to re-instate the Iran nuclear deal and having witnessed the anarchic way in which the US withdrew from Afghanistan, handing absolute power back to the Taliban in that country, raised alarm bells over the veracity of what an American security umbrella means. Today, the Gulf seeks security guarantees from the US, where the penchant for extended foreign military deployments is minimal, and narratives to end ‘forever wars’ remain steadfast.
Nonetheless, the US was to never fully exit the Middle East. The idea, perhaps, was to push the Gulf states to take more onus of their own security. And if the perceived waning of American hard power in the region was not enough, the Russia–Ukraine crisis has accelerated the development and protection of regional political constructs that are critical to how the Middle East sees its future geopolitical opportunities and challenges. Interestingly, a few years after a flurry of ‘end of oil’ think pieces and front pages brought an existential crisis upon the hydrocarbons sector, it is back to basics, as mitigating the overheating of global oil prices is expected to be one of the top agendas for Biden during his trip, rekindling an old bilateral relationship between Riyadh and Texas.
However, there are more challenges than opportunities on the way for the American President. Weeks before his impending visit, Saudi Arabia hosted the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to meet with officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states. This comes at a time when the US along with Europe has tried to rally international support against Moscow’s military ingressions into Ukraine. However, instead of a global consensus, countries in the Global South, Asia, Latin America, and Africa have preferred to not take a strong stance against Russia and walk down a non-interference path to protect their own strategic and economic interests. This is where states such as Saudi Arabia have chosen to maintain and solidify the OPEC+ system where the Saudis are permanent members of the cartel-like Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) along with 10 other non-OPEC members, which includes Russia, one of the world’s top three oil producers. The Russia–Ukraine war has sent global commodity prices and inflation into a tizzy, significantly worrying small- and medium-size economies about critical overheating. These smaller or more exposed states are sandwiched between the return of an ‘East’ vs ‘West’ narrative coupled with high oil prices that are benefitting the exchequers of OPEC producers.
Even as the US is one of the top producers of oil today, it remains relatively outside the influence zones that decide oil pricing. Enter Biden’s visit and aim to ‘normalise’ ties with MbS as prices of energy and other commodities by association skyrocket. Ultimately, the success of a trip may end up relying on what MbS wants, instead of what Biden demands.
If the Biden trip materialises, as the President attempts to ward off pressures from his own party on meeting with MbS, a new geopolitical reality in the Middle East awaits him. From the Abraham Accords signed in 2020 and a fragile but expanding truce in Yemen to the recent security deal in the Strait of Tiran between Israel and the Saudis, a sense to de-conflict the region as much as possible is taking shape, and within this, the US continues to play a key role to see these outcomes through. However, at the end of the day, what the Saudis and Emiratis are looking for are outcomes that are far more substantial, such as unfettered access to high-end weapons, and perhaps even guarantees of direct American military involvement if an existential threat may come into play. And to achieve these, the Middle East powers have shown no remorse in hedging their bets against others such as China, with Beijing making steady progress both strategically and economically by placing itself as a viable long-term partner to the region. The recent defence deal between Abu Dhabi and Beijing for over a dozen L-15 trainer jets underscores a building consensus in the Gulf to diversify its options.
Other than the arguably unexpected global tectonic shifts being pushed through by Russia’s war on Ukraine, from a more regional perspective, Iran and the second avatar of the nuclear deal (JCPOA) remain contested issues. The Saudis, at some stage, realised that dealing with Tehran directly may just be a better option, considering that Washington was steadfast in seeing the JCPOA 2.0 through to the finish line. However, as things stand, the deal once again looks marooned in shallow waters with little progress being made over the past few months as it continues to metamorphise from being an arms control agreement to something much wider and expansive.
Finally, Biden’s visit to Riyadh, even if dictated by certain situations that are being played out, may end up as a positive in the long term from a strategic and foreign policy point of view. What could worry Biden much more, is how this trip could be translated by his own supporters back home, as the US mid-term elections loom large, and the President’s both foreign and domestic policies record up until now remains underwhelming at best.