Why is President Joe Biden going to Saudi Arabia next month?
During his presidential campaign and for most of his first year in office, Biden treated the kingdom’s imperious and murderous Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a pariah. But that was when the price of gasoline was around $2 a gallon. And it was also at a time when the murder and decapitation of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at the crown prince’s direction, plus a ruinous Saudi-led war in Yemen, were big problems for the oil kingdom.
Now, however, the calculation is different. With U.S. gasoline prices rising well above $5 a gallon and most of the western world refusing to buy oil from Russia because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, neither Saudi oil nor the crown prince look as bad as they once did.
So, Biden is making the trip. But he won’t admit that he will embrace Saudi Arabia and its autocratic leadership in order to firm up world oil availability. Instead, he claims that his visit is driven more by security concerns than the price of gasoline. And he says, “I’m not going to meet with MBS [the crown prince]. I’m going to an international meeting, and he’s going to be part of it.”
The president will start his trip in Israel, and will also meet with Palestinian leaders. That will be the easy part of the trip. It is when he gets to Saudi Arabia that friends and foes will be watching carefully to see whether Biden can pull off a Saudi Arabian summit with so many built-in contradictions.
Israel welcomes the visit to the kingdom as another step in the Abraham Accords process in which the United States has used its leverage to encourage Arab states to establish formal ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia would be the jewel in the crown of the universally praised Abraham Accords. Back home, however, the visit has been criticized by a wide range of interests, including democracy and human-rights advocates, media figures, Republican politicians and even some of Biden’s fellow Democrats. Each of the critics raises significant policy or diplomatic concerns that create a complicated list of issues that need to be navigated by the president in his Saudi meetings.
Thus, beyond the highly publicized human rights concerns, Abraham Accords issues and oil pricing and production, there is the Saudi war effort in Yemen, the Khashoggi murder and Saudi concerns about a possible reentry of the U.S. into an Iran nuclear deal. And, of course, there are lingering questions about why it is necessary for Biden to ask the Saudis to produce more oil when the United States, as the world’s largest oil producer, should be able to do that itself.
There are a lot of moving diplomatic and policy parts relating to Biden’s Saudi visit. That’s a lot to juggle. We hope the president is up to it.