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The US and Saudi Arabia: Biden’s U-turn

The US and Saudi Arabia: Biden’s U-turn

Status: 06/21/2022 03:53 a.m

US President Biden wanted to treat Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Bin Salman like an outcast. But now Biden is traveling to the country in July and is likely to meet Bin Salman there. The change of heart has a domestic political reason.

By Torsten Teichmann, ARD Studio Washington

The street in Washington that leads past the Saudi embassy to the Kennedy Center has been called Jamal Khashoggi Way since last week. Political activists such as Abdullah Ala’oudh had organized the symbolic renaming to mark Kashoggi’s legacy”despite all attempts at normalization”. Journalist Khashoggi was murdered in 2018. US intelligence services believe that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – also known as MBS for short – is the mastermind.

During the election campaign, US President Joe Biden therefore promised to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah, as an outcast.

Encounter inevitable

Last week, however, the White House announced that Biden would travel to Jeddah, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in mid-July. Biden asserted: “I’m not meeting with MBS. I’m flying to an international meeting that he’s also attending.”

The event Biden is traveling to is a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting. Saudi Arabia chairs. How does the US President want to avoid the Saudi crown prince?

The announcement of Biden’s trip back to Saud’s house alone had caused frustration. The US Democrat Adam Schiff criticized the decision in a letter together with other members of parliament: “I would not fly there, I would not shake his hand,” stressed Schiff, adding: “It just shows you how hungry for fossil fuels fuels distorts our foreign policy. And we act against our values.”

Is it about domestic problems?

Rising gasoline prices and the US desire for higher production quotas are a reason for the U-turn in public diplomacy towards the oil-rich kingdom. Republicans like Senator Chuck Grassley suspect Biden is about inflation and domestic politics. Grassley has seen a lot. At 88, he is exactly eleven years older than US-Saudi Arabia relations.

Why, Grassley asks, “would the President go to Saudi Arabia and ask for more oil when there’s enough oil in our country? Also, we have environmental regulations to clean up afterwards and they don’t have that.”

The Ukraine war affects the priorities

In other words, the Biden government is also forgetting its own projects when it comes to environmental issues. In fact, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shifted Washington’s priorities, including relations with Saudi Arabia.

Washington wants to keep its own allies together in the confrontation with Moscow. The Saudis have already seen the Russian military presence in the Middle East as a counterpoint to the United States, writes the Internet magazine Politico. When all the heads of state and government avoided Crown Prince MBS at the G20 meeting in 2018, it was Putin who offered him the high-five.

Will there now be a meeting with President Biden? For Bin Salman that would be another international upgrade.

Image: Pool via REUTERS

No fracture – but at what price?

And as much as Biden publicly distanced himself, it was always clear at the diplomatic level that a complete break with Riyadh was not in the United States’ national security interest. MP Gerry Connoly from Washington DC still thinks the decision is wrong and asks “at what price” it will be made: “A person has been murdered by the number two of a state abroad. This is unacceptable for the interests of the USA and its Foreign policy. And unacceptable to the President of the United States.”

The president was probably always more committed to realpolitik than his campaign speeches suggested. In early June he said, “I’m not changing my views on human rights. But as President of the United States, my job is to make peace when I have the opportunity.”

The confrontation with Russia and the pressure on the US economy are the decisive factors for the turnaround. Even if the US government doesn’t want to call them that.

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