World Politics

Biden heads to Saudi Arabia for what could be an 'embarrassing' climbdown — or a welcome reset

Key Points
  • While campaigning in 2019, Biden vowed to treat the Saudi kingdom as "the pariah that they are," and as president, he vocally criticized the country's human rights abuses.
  • Recently, however, Biden wrote in an op-ed that "from the start, my aim was to reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that's been a strategic partner for 80 years."
US President Joe Biden makes his way to board Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on July 12, 2022.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

President Joe Biden is headed to Saudi Arabia this week as part of his first Middle East trip as commander in chief.

He's going with a list of goals, including energy security, bringing the Saudis and Israel closer together, advancing a truce in Yemen, and establishing a more cohesive regional front against Iran. 

But it's a controversial move for this president, and no one is really sure how much he'll actually achieve.

The planned visit has spurred plenty of criticism, from both the right and left, for being what some are calling an "embarrassing" climbdown and for revealing a clear reversal from the tough talk against the kingdom that Biden had employed during his candidacy and in the early months of his presidency.   

Now, things are different. Gasoline in the U.S. has been at its most expensive ever, Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine has dramatically tightened the global oil supply, and Biden really, really wants Saudi Arabia and Israel to be friends. So will the trip feel like an awkward apology, or a reset for two countries with mutual interests?

"I wouldn't go. I wouldn't shake his hand," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in an interview in June, when asked about the president's planned meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He then referred to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the administration attributed to the crown prince. The Saudi government has repeatedly rejected the accusation.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the G20 Leaders' Summit via videoconference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on October 30, 2021.
Royal Court of Saudi Arabia | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

While campaigning in 2019, Biden vowed to treat the Saudi kingdom as "the pariah that they are," and as president, he vocally criticized the country's human rights abuses. He also insisted on viewing Saudi Arabia's King Salman as his counterpart, rather than the 36-year-old crown prince, who runs the kingdom's day-to-day affairs. 

Crown Prince Mohammed in March reportedly refused to take a call from Biden, as the U.S. leader pleaded with Gulf states to increase oil production after banning Russian oil imports. 

And in an early March interview with The Atlantic, when asked if he thought Biden misunderstood him, the crown prince replied: "Simply, I do not care. It's up to him to think about the interests of America."

A 'welcome reset'

It seems Biden has come around to putting those interests ahead of what was perhaps a more idealistic narrative.

On Saturday, the president published an op-ed in The Washington Post entitled "Why I'm going to Saudi Arabia." In it, he argued that "from the start, my aim was to reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that's been a strategic partner for 80 years." He stressed the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship for stability in the region and for American interests.  

Biden is hardly the first president to run on a 'human rights will be central to my foreign policy' platform, only to be confronted in office by the realities of the Middle East.
Hussein Ibish
Senior resident scholar, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the kingdom's royal court, sees Biden's visit as a tonic for damaged relations. 

"I think the mistake that the Biden administration made was it took its campaign rhetoric into the administration" and that "hit a wall of realism," he told CNBC. 

The visit, he said, "is a reset. And I think it's a welcome reset. Because the relationship is important to the kingdom also. And they would like those clouds to pass."

President Biden speaks to Saudi King as U.S. prepares to release Khashoggi report
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President Biden speaks to Saudi King as U.S. prepares to release Khashoggi report

"I think by virtue of visiting the kingdom he puts that behind him, and that allows things to go back to where they were with America previously," Shihabi added.

Biden says human rights will still be high on his agenda. But many observers say that's unlikely, given the other security and energy-related interests in focus. 

"Biden is hardly the first president to run on a 'human rights will be central to my foreign policy' platform, only to be confronted in office by the realities of the Middle East," said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. 

The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the White House did not reply to CNBC requests for comment.

Oil and Israel

Biden has downplayed what many analysts say is his administration's desperate need to see the Saudis and OPEC members pump more oil, in order to ease record-high gas prices for Americans. 

"Absent the war in Ukraine, the tightening of the oil market and the spiking of oil prices, there would be no rapprochement with Saudi Arabia," Martin Indyk, a former U.S. diplomat and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview with the Financial Times. 

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of signed agreements as they participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and some of its Middle East neighbors, in a strategic realignment of Middle Eastern countries against Iran, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 15, 2020.
Tom Brenner | Reuters

But Biden has largely rejected this, stressing Israel's security as a top priority. The trip "has to do with national security for them — for Israelis," he told reporters in June. This could be an effort to shift the narrative to a topic that's more broadly supported in Washington: Republicans and a majority of Democrats back Israeli-Arab normalization.

The fact that Biden will be flying from Israel directly to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is one small hint of progress on that goal. Biden's administration has also been pushing for more military interoperability between Israel and Arab states to form a unified U.S.-guided coalition that would create more leverage against Iran.

But any overt engagement is highly unlikely, with security cooperation between the kingdom and Israel likely continuing "behind the scenes" as it has for several years, according to Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal MENA analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft. 

What does Saudi Arabia want?

While critics have said the meeting will put the ball entirely in the Saudis' court, there are some things the kingdom very much wants from the U.S. – primarily, an ironclad guarantee of security.

"Enhanced air defense," said Shihabi. "Air defense is absolutely crucial for the importance of the whole peninsula, the whole [Gulf Cooperation Council], and I think that is where Biden can make a big difference. A more formal commitment of resources that would secure the airspace of the GCC would be the big ask."

An Aramco oil depot was engulfed in flames after a missile attack claimed by Yemen's Houthis. The strike came on the eve of the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.
Peter J Fox | Getty Images

Biden angered the Saudis when he withdrew America's Patriot missile batteries and other advanced military systems from Saudi Arabia last year, even as the kingdom was being hit by missile and rocket attacks from Yemen's Houthi rebels and other Iran-backed groups.   

'Unlikely to lead to a breakthrough'

Despite having a number of shared interests, Biden may still fail to make a breakthrough in relations, says Verisk Maplecroft's Soltvedt.

"U.S. calls on Saudi Arabia to increase the rate of oil production have fallen on deaf ears. This is unlikely to change," he said.

Biden's advisors have also talked about Saudi Arabia committing to stay fully aligned with the U.S. versus Russia and China. But some warn that the rapprochement effort won't achieve that.

"There's little to suggest that Biden's strategy of showering the Saudi crown prince … with concessions will bring about a sustainable Saudi-Emirati commitment to the U.S. side in the great power competition of this century," Trita Parsi, co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, wrote in an op-ed for MSNBC.

He argued that making a military commitment to protecting the Saudis and other Gulf allies is not in U.S. interests.

US military personnel stand by a M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) during Saudi Arabias first World Defense Show, north of the capital Riyadh, on March 6, 2022.
Fayez Nureldine | Afp | Getty Images

"Committing American lives to defend these Arab dictatorships is far more scandalous than an embarrassing presidential handshake with the Saudi crown prince," Parsi said. "Biden will in one swoop break his promises of bringing troops home from the Middle East, making Saudi Arabia pay a price and ending the war in Yemen." 

Still, others contend that a strong relationship with Saudi leadership, specifically with the crown prince, is vital to maintaining U.S. influence in the region — and the world. 

"Great power competition with China is not possible by walking away from the Gulf region and hoping for the best," the Arab Gulf States Institute's Ibish said. "To the contrary, it means continued engagement."

"It is a plausible partnership because of broad, shared mutual interests," he added, "even though the values are not shared or mutual in many cases."

U.S. president 'back in the game' in Israel will impact American domestic politics: Former ambassador
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U.S. president 'back in the game' in Israel will impact American domestic politics: Former ambassador