Joe Biden makes his first trip to the Middle East as president this week as the crisis in global oil markets pushes him to reset relations with Saudi Arabia, a country he once threatened to make a pariah state.
Relations between the US and Saudi Arabia, allies traditionally tightly bound by oil and security concerns, reached a historic low in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the war in Yemen.
The fallout from the war in Ukraine, which has sent global oil prices higher, has created an opening to put relations between Washington and the world’s biggest crude producer back on track, and deliver dividends for both sides, officials and analysts in the US and the Gulf say.
Prior to his election in 2020, Biden had promised to reassess relations with the Gulf state. In a pre-emptive defence of his visit, Biden wrote in the Washington Post at the weekend that “from the start, my aim was to reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years”. He said his meeting with Saudi leaders was critical towards advancing US efforts to counter Russia and outcompete China.
Biden will from Wednesday meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but much of the attention is on this weekend’s meeting in Jeddah with Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The visit, where he will attend a summit of Arab leaders, will determine whether Biden can secure progress on oil and regional relations that he needs to justify his U-turn on Saudi Arabia to his critics, including those from the progressive wing of the Democratic party.
“Absent the war in Ukraine, the tightening of the oil market and the spiking of oil prices, there would be no rapprochement with Saudi Arabia,” said Martin Indyk, a former US envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In his opinion column, Biden said that Saudi Arabia was “working with my experts to help stabilise oil markets with other OPEC producers”. Analysts expect that Saudi Arabia, the world’s top crude producer, will this week agree to at least some modest increases after the Opec+ agreement, which includes Opec members such as Saudi Arabia as well as Russia, ends in September.
The US does not expect any specific announcements on oil production at this week’s summit but anticipates further increases in the future, according to a person familiar with the administration’s thinking. It might, however, announce a deal connecting Iraq to the Gulf states’ power grid, the person said. This would reduce Iraq’s dependence on Iran for some of its energy needs.
Biden is also expected to announce progress on efforts to get Israel and Saudi Arabia to normalise ties — in the wake of the 2020 Abraham Accords that saw the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Israel establish relations — as well as discuss a US effort to integrate regional air defences to better protect Israel and other regional powers from Iranian ballistic missiles and other threats.
“It’s a more operational version of something that has been in the works for many years, enabled by Israel being in Centcom and the new atmosphere between Israel and Arab states,” said Dan Shapiro, a former ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration now at the Atlantic Council think-tank, referring to US Central Command.
US and Israeli officials said the air defence project was a goal rather than something that would happen right away. “We’re not there, it’s a goal that is set and there’s a long way to go,” a senior Israeli official said. Other officials in the region point out that an integrated defence system has long been an ambition of the US, but never made progress.
Analysts and diplomats also caution that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel for years. Most likely, they say, the US this week will announce deals to expand overflight rights for planes coming from Israel and finalisation of the transfer of two Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, which requires Israel’s backing. The parties are also discussing allowing Palestinian religious pilgrims with Israeli passports to fly directly to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj.
After years of wariness among Gulf states about Washington’s willingness to stay engaged in the region for the long haul, Saudi Arabia, for its part, is looking for greater security assurances, particularly after it felt Washington did not do enough when Iran-backed militants launched waves of drone and missile attacks this year.
“They’re looking for a US commitment to respond to future Iranian attacks on Saudi energy facilities and to set some sort of threshold that would merit a forceful US response,” said Mark Dubowitz, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who recently met senior officials in Saudi Arabia.
He also said the Saudis would look for promises that the Biden administration would lobby Congress to support military sales to Riyadh. Such deals face staunch opposition among legislators critical of Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen, home to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
More broadly, for Saudi Arabia, the visit is a chance to restore Prince Mohammed’s place on the world stage, particularly after the US publicly released an intelligence report saying he authorised the operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi. Riyadh has blamed the killing by Saudi agents on a rogue operation.
“They see this as an opportunity to get out of the penalty box and reinforce the legitimacy of the King and MBS,” said Brian Katulis, vice-president for research and senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and who recently visited Saudi Arabia.
While Biden administration officials have said that the US president will meet Prince Mohammed, they have taken pains to say that no separate huddle is scheduled between them. They stress that the purpose of the Saudi visit is to see all Gulf Cooperation Council leaders, not just Saudi officials.
Biden administration officials said he would press human rights issues in Saudi Arabia, but analysts said there would be a limit to how far he could go. “We want the best relations with America, but not like the old days and if he starts talking about human rights he’s not going to get anywhere,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political science professor.
Additional reporting by James Shotter in Jerusalem and Andrew England in London