Opinion: Mr. Biden is going to Riyadh (hat in hand)

Editor’s note: Peter Bergen is a CNN national security analyst, vice president of New America, and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He has made several reporting trips to Saudi Arabia since 2005. Bergen’s new paperback is « The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World. » The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.


A cynic is rarely disappointed by the actions of his fellow man, and President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia this week won’t disappoint many cynics because it’s entirely predictable.

Of course, Biden, as a presidential candidate, may have called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s kingdom a « pariah » for sending agents to Turkey who murdered US journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the dismembering at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, according to a US intelligence report. (The Saudi Foreign Ministry reacted to this report, stating that it « completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment… regarding the leadership of the Kingdom, and notes that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions » .)

MBS, as he is widely known, was also the main driver behind Saudi military intervention in Yemen’s civil war in 2015, helping to precipitate what the United Nations has warned could be the world’s worst crisis. humanitarian in the world.

Not only that, but MBS’s reckless intervention backfired dramatically; instead of ridding Yemen of Shia Houthi rebels, they are now even more entrenched in the country and are now aligned with Iran, which supplies them with missiles and drones that have repeatedly targeted Saudi Arabia as well than its close ally the United Arab Emirates.

MBS has also imprisoned just about anyone in Saudi Arabia who could threaten its absolute power, from former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to Saudi women who simply demonstrated for the right to drive.

He arrested dozens of top Saudi businessmen, accusing them of corruption. They were held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, and after more than $100 billion was allegedly obtained from them in settlements, the majority of them were released in what must be the hotel. the most expensive in history.

In March, the regime carried out a mass execution of 81 men, Saudi authorities said, Reuters reported. According to Human Rights Watch, 41 of these men belonged to the kingdom’s Shia minority group who are sometimes imprisoned or executed simply for taking part in demonstrations. (Saudi Arabia denies accusations of human rights violations, according to the Reuters report.)

But now high gas prices are contributing to the worst US inflation in four decades. So, Biden will go to Riyadh and meet MBS. The Crown Prince will no doubt ensure that well-publicized footage of his meeting with the US President is released.

Every US president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has made calculations similar to those Biden makes about the House of Saud. Sure, Saudi monarchs may be despots – slavery wasn’t officially abolished in the kingdom until 1962, and MBS granted women the right to drive four years ago – but Saudi Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s leading oil producers and holds about a sixth of the world’s proven oil reserves, which means the Saudis can turn on the taps and let the price of oil drop, or they can shut down taps and the price of oil will rise.

Relations between nations are based on shared interests, and the US-Saudi relationship is tied not only to ensuring a steady supply of oil at a reasonable price, but also to counterterrorism initiatives and efforts to attempt to contain Iranian influence in the region. For successive US governments, these interests have tended to trump concerns about the Saudis’ generally dismal human rights record.

This reckoning on the Saudis was well described by then-President Barack Obama, who told CNN in 2015: « Sometimes we have to balance our need to talk to them about human rights issues and our immediate concerns in terms of combating terrorism or dealing with regional stability.

As long as the US economy remains deeply tied to hydrocarbons – planes, for example, won’t be flying on electric batteries anytime soon – and as long as the Saudis sit on an ocean of oil, this reckoning will surely continue. And MBS is 36, so he could rule Saudi Arabia for decades to come.

To be sure, Biden isn’t kissing the crown prince in the same obsequious way as former President Donald Trump did. Trump made his first foreign visit as the kingdom’s president and strongly endorsed the subsequent Saudi blockade of neighboring Qatar, even though Qatar is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East, which then played a key role in the wars against ISIS and the Taliban.

Trump also pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, a key Saudi foreign policy goal, even though that deal was working, according to international inspectors and US intelligence agencies.

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was effectively the president’s shadow secretary of state, led the administration’s campaign to get closer to MBS, whom he regularly texted on WhatsApp.

Kushner’s cultivation of the Crown Prince would ultimately provide a handsome payday. Six months after the departure of the Trump administration, against the advice of its advisers, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, led by MBS, invested $2 billion in Kushner’s equity fund, according to the New York Times.

Unlike Trump/Kushner, however, Biden is not a scapegoat for Saudi interests. When Biden took office, his administration ended Trump’s White House designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, complicating relief efforts for Yemenis, hundreds of thousands of whom have died of disease or malnutrition. because of the civil war.

On his trip to Riyadh, Biden will surely have his demands of the Saudis too, such as maintaining a fragile truce recently negotiated in Yemen, which is now more than three months old. Another demand will be to encourage closer ties with Israel, which would likely fall short of any formal recognition of the Jewish state, but could involve confidence-building measures such as clearance for planes flying to and from Israel. to fly over Saudi airspace.

And, of course, Biden’s primary goal will be to get the Saudis to help drive down oil prices, something they already started doing in modest ways in May.

But MBS will also get what he wants, which is a high-profile meeting with the US president, showing the world that his kingdom is no pariah.

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