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Go Big in Saudi Arabia

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What do you do with an oil-rich Arab leader that you can’t live with, but also can’t live without? That’s the dilemma President Joe Biden is confronting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Since the beginning of his administration, Biden has kept MBS (as he is commonly known) at arm’s length, refusing to deal with him because of his violent response to political dissent at home (jailing female protesters and beheading 81 dissidents) and abroad (ordering the killing and dismembering of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018), as well as his decision to intervene in an ongoing civil war in Yemen, making an already bad humanitarian situation much worse. Determined to reinsert values into U.S. foreign policy and bolster democratic leaders rather than autocrats, Biden declared as a presidential candidate that he would treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah.” But now, gas prices are climbing, fueling inflation. This is dragging Biden’s poll numbers down and threatening to severely handicap Democratic candidates in the midterm elections. The key to reversing this dynamic appears to lie in the hands of MBS, since his country is the only oil producer with sufficient excess capacity to calm the oil markets.

With this in mind, Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia in July. The trip is being justified by its proponents as a classic realpolitik bargain. The benefits of reconciliation are self-evident. For Biden, more oil on the global market should mean relief at the gas pump for Americans. By dropping objections to the way MBS governs, the Biden administration would diminish the Saudi government’s desire to expand its ties to China and Russia at the expense of the United States—important in an era of intense great-power competition. In return, the crown prince would no longer need to answer questions about the Khashoggi murder and his treatment of critics of his regime. The pariah would be transformed into a partner.

Biden is clearly uncomfortable with this approach. According to Politico, he initially opposed meeting MBS, telling his aides that the presidency “should stand for something.” Biden seems to have changed his mind. But his current strategy resolves none of the fundamental disagreements with Saudi Arabia; they would simply be swept under the rug. Although oil prices might moderate, they are unlikely to do so fast enough to help Americans this summer or Democratic candidates in November. Meanwhile, congressional criticism will likely grow, particularly (but not exclusively) from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, in which the abandonment of a values-based policy toward the Saudi crown prince will cause outrage. Arms sales already blocked by Congress would likely remain so. The Yemen conflict would continue to rankle.

For his part, MBS might enjoy being released from purgatory, but even though a presidential handshake might salve his wounded pride, it will do little to reassure him of American reliability. In time, therefore, with the effects of the war in Ukraine subsiding, the underlying logic of a relatively narrow reconciliation would inevitably weaken, rendering it more difficult to sustain. Biden should instead consider a more fundamental reconceptualization of the bilateral relationship. What both countries need is a new compact that focuses on countering a major strategic threat they both face: Iran’s nuclear program.

​Gas prices may be the near-term motivating factor for Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia, but at the core of any rapprochement should be the common need to counter Iran. For the United States, Iran remains the........

© Foreign Affairs

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