Biden visits Saudi Arabia with a mission to kiss and do makeup
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Will President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hold their noses when they meet on Biden’s first trip as president to Saudi Arabia on Friday?
To say there is no love lost between the 79-year-old US president and the 36-year-old de facto Saudi leader is an understatement. The two men visibly hate each other.
During the campaign, Biden lambasted President Donald Trump for ignoring bin Salman’s human rights abuses, particularly the gruesome 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist.
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One of Biden’s first acts as president was to release the CIA’s assessment that MBS, as the Saudi prince is known, ordered the murder (a charge he denies.) pledging to treating the kingdom and its de facto ruler as « the pariah that they are », Biden has frozen offensive arms sales to the kingdom and imposed sanctions and travel bans on Saudis linked to the killing, but as noted several seasoned analysts, not on MBS itself.
Even after plans for the visit leaked, Biden’s unease was evident. Initially denying he would visit the kingdom, Biden tried to justify the trip by saying he was meeting several other Arab leaders in Jeddah. In a Washington Post op-ed a few days later, Biden wrote that the purpose of his visit « from the start » was to « reorient » but not « sever » relations with the kingdom, « a strategic partner for 80 years. » . But even in his op-ed, Biden couldn’t bring himself to mention the crown prince by name.
The contempt is apparently mutual. Having apparently refused to answer a call from Biden in the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, MBS told Atlantic magazine when asked if Biden had misunderstood him: « Put simply, I m ‘cares. »
But realpolitik – or political riyal, in this case – led the two men to recalculate. Biden decided to make the trip after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine helped push gas prices into the stratosphere and his approval ratings into treacherous territory. While critics called the flip-flop a departure from his commitment to human rights, supporters welcomed it as a return to a more traditional stance that reflects the priority of oil and geopolitics over the desire to isolate the kingdom for its human rights abuses. .
“We can all agree that no one should be killed, dismembered and cooked in a Tandoori oven in Istanbul,” said David Schenker, a Middle East expert who served in the Trump administration. « But is Saudi Arabia’s human rights record really much worse than, say, Egypt’s? »
Given COVID-19 and instructions for Biden before he leaves the United States, there probably won’t be a handshake. There will surely be no hint of a curtsy, which President Barack Obama appeared to do when he met Saudi King Abdullah in 2009, and President Donald Trump did too when he received a civilian medal. from MBS in 2017. There will be no holding hands, an Arab tradition among men, as President George W. Bush did when he welcomed the Saudi king to his Texas ranch in 2005. There will also be no air kisses on this kissing and makeup journey.
Both men want the trip to look successful. For MBS, veteran Saudi expert Gregory Gause argues, Biden’s visit will bring the political rehabilitation he needs. MBS also wants Biden’s recognition of the dramatic social and economic changes he has made as part of his 2030 Vision – letting women drive, ending their segregation in public, containing the obnoxious religious police, allowing music concerts. music and cinemas, and at least ending official support for radical Islamist preachers and schools at home and abroad.
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He also wants Biden to return the Patriot missile batteries he removed as the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen pounded Saudi oil facilities and the lifting of the suspension on offensive arms sales. Above all, he seeks assurances that the United States will protect the kingdom from Iran, especially as Biden’s efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran have stalled.
While the Saudis could announce more open public cooperation with Israel — for example, extending overflight rights or allowing direct flights for religious pilgrims — King Salman, the ailing 86-year-old leader, is unlikely to establish official ties with Israel now as several other Arab states did under the 2020 Abraham Accords, Trump’s most notable achievement in the Middle East. While the Saudis could announce improved air defense coordination against Iranian missile and drone strikes, it may not match the vaunted « Arab NATO » that regional officials have been discussing. But the visit could lead to a strengthened air defense if Iran heads for a nuclear « breakout » and an atomic bomb.
Biden also has a lot at stake. Although few analysts believe the Saudis will agree to pump more than the 648,000 barrels per day as OPEC has already announced, the White House hopes the trip will end the inclination of the kingdom towards Russia and China.
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Critics like Saad Aljabri, Saudi deputy intelligence chief and valuable Washington partner in the fight against Islamic terrorism, who is now a political refugee in Canada, warn that MBS will not change. While Aljabri calls him a « psycho », optimists hope the visit can help contain MBS’s worst instincts. As arrests of Saudi dissidents continue, they say, MBS has worked to extend the ceasefire in the war he sparked in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthis, another appalling disaster in matters of human rights. Robert Satloff, who heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Saudi foreign policy under MBS is considerably « less adventurous, less rogue » than it was several years ago.
More importantly, according to him and others, the visit marks the beginning of efforts to resuscitate US-Saudi relations. Given the geostrategic stakes at stake, this is not only sensible, but long overdue.
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