Will Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia help recalibrate US-Saudi ties? Experts weigh in

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Foreign policy experts discussed whether US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia will help create a lasting recalibration of US-Saudi ties during a recent discussion hosted by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW).

With soaring gas prices and a worsening global food security crisis as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, urgent policy issues are at stake ahead of Biden’s expected trip to the Middle East, with a planned visit to Saudi Arabia from July 15 to 16. This highly anticipated visit, for many, signals Washington’s willingness to work with the Crown Prince and Saudi Arabia during a period of economic turmoil and uncertainty, as well as political instability throughout the wider Middle East and North Africa region.

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Commenting on his analysis of peoples’ view of Saudi-US relations in academic and policy circles in the US, Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Mohammed Alyahya said that the Kingdom is “often portrayed as a little more than just an ATM machine or a gas station.”

“It’s viewed purely through the lens of energy, economics and oil. And I think that analysis is dangerous, and it’s wrong… it’s also very novel in the United States. There’s never been a time where that type of analysis was not present.”

However, Alyahya noted that this is changing now under Biden’s agenda, highlighting Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the US over 30 years ago, when it reached its “strategic peak” and cooperated to topple the Soviet Union, where “energy intersected with military and media operations.”

“The [Saudi-US] cooperation was not just the cooperation of a country that was an ATM machine or a gas station. It was a deeply strategic cooperation. And this is the crux of why this is important, I think, is that Saudi Arabia has a model for its own country. It’s undergoing a very massive transformation, one that is predicated on social transformation, but also on economic diversification… it’s doing this out of a commitment to its own self-interest. But we mustn’t forget that the project that it’s undergoing is also squarely within the self-interest of the United States,” he said, in reference to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 – a transformative economic and social reform blueprint launched by the Kingdom in 2016.

“This is a model that embraces the aspirations of young people, that says youth bulges are not threats to be quashed, but opportunities to be embraced.”

‘Recognition of reality’: US needs Saudi Arabia to meet energy needs

Danielle Pletka, Distinguished Senior Fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that Biden’s visit to the Kingdom will be a “gas station visit” based on the current economic reality of soaring gas prices as a result of Russian sanctions.

“I think this is completely about domestic economic prices. I think this is completely about a recognition of reality that we actually do depend on Saudi Arabia,” Pletka said, stressing that the analytical problem in her opinion was that the economic issues being faced in the US had “very little to do with [the war in] Ukraine.”

Echoing Pletka’s sentiment, Alyahya stated that Biden’s visit was “a recognition of reality,” noting that the US, despite criticizing its allies for not doing enough to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin, imported more Russian oil in March 2022 than any other month on record.

“The United States was reprimanding its allies for allegedly not doing enough to counter Vladimir Putin, [but] the United States was buying more Russian oil than it has ever bought in its history. And again, it did that because physical reality is physical. It's tangible. It’s not something you can run away from,” Alyahya explained.

“[The] recognition of reality is, in part, that energy markets are important, and that creating an energy policy that overlooks these physical realities and forces someone to go and buy Russian oil is not the best way to create policy.”

Speaking to reporters last week on condition of anonymity, a senior administration official said that new climate and infrastructure initiatives will be unveiled during Biden’s trip to the Kingdom and deterring threats from Iran and ensuring global energy and food security will also be discussed.

Bilateral ties between the two nations quickly soured following Biden’s election.

“The bilateral relationship has suffered a little bit more in the past ten years than it has perhaps any at any other point. And its history, and that's something that needs to be dealt with, irrespective of whether, you know, a meaningful regional coalition or security umbrella is successful,” Alyahya said.

Biden and his administration have repeatedly stated their intention to “recalibrate” ties with the Kingdom and made several foreign policy moves to target Saudi Arabia.
Potential ‘mismatch’ of expectations about Biden visit

Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow and Vice President of Policy at the Middle East Institute, noted that with three weeks left until Biden’s visit to the Kingdom, a lot of work still needs to be done by both Saudi Arabia and the US.

“If you look carefully at the various statements that were issued in the last week or so, once since the visit was announced, is a potential mismatch of expectations between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “The headline though, for me, is better late than never, on this visit.”

Katulis believes that since Biden came into office, not much has been accomplished in terms of the recalibration of bilateral ties between the US and Saudi, but expressed that while oil and energy were a top line, there is a broader opportunity to help consolidate regional security given that there was “no Plan B on Iran.”

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity outside of oil and the economy. There’s the regional security environment, and then there’s this issue of ideology, which is something that’s changed quite a lot within the Kingdom compared to, say, even five or 10 years ago,” he said. “But the challenges are many.”

“I’m a true believer in diplomacy. And engagement, including with countries like Iran and tough countries. That’s where some of our best diplomats have had their biggest successes with the Soviet Union.”

Alyahya argued that a challenge Saudi faces in relation to the US, which it also shares with other countries in the region including the GCC, is that it is “trying to figure out where the US stands from its own regional security architecture.”

“Does it [US] want to maintain it [security]? Does it want to withdraw? Is it pivoting to China? Is it not pivoting to China? Would it get very upset if people talk to China? What about Russia? I mean, people in the region aren’t oblivious to the fact that Vladimir Putin has a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean as a result of the Obama administration policy,” Alyahya said.

“There is confusion as to what the United States wants… there is a view in the region that the United States sometimes doesn’t know what it wants with these countries. These allies of the United States, for a long time, have acted as pillars for its regional security structure. So now they’re wondering, is this structure being dismantled? It’s not about judgment, it’s not about recrimination, but it’s just about confusion.”

Abraham Accords, Saudi ties with Israel and Palestine

The UAE, along with Bahrain, signed US-brokered normalization agreements with Israel, dubbed the Abraham Accords, in 2020 under the Trump administration to normalize ties.

Biden’s trip to the Middle East will take place from July 13 to 16 and will include stops in the West Bank and Israel before heading to Saudi Arabia.

Pletka said that the Biden administration has “already signaled” that it is looking to advance the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. They [Biden administration] want their piece of the Abraham Accords. Why should Trump get all of it?” she said. “The complicating factor here is not, as one might suspect, the collapse of the Israeli government. I think the much more complicating factor is the directionless problem of the Palestinian leadership.”

A senior administration official speaking to reporters last week on condition of anonymity said that Biden would meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

However, the details of the discussion that will take place between the pair have not been revealed yet.

In the West Bank, Biden is expected to emphasize his support for a two-state solution with equal measures of freedom, security, and opportunity for Palestinians, a White House statement from Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre last week revealed.

Pletka believes that the Palestinian cause has “diminished in importance” for Gulf countries.

Conversely, Alyahya said that the Palestine cause did still have an influence on people in the region, but that the “public sentiment has changed.”

“I think the way it changed, and I think the Abraham Accords contributed to some degree to this, is that a commitment to the Palestinian cause and sympathy with the

Palestinian cause is no longer required to be part of a package where you have to also support Hezbollah and Hamas and the Iranian revolution and all of these anti-imperialist revolutionary forces across the region,” he said.

“In the past, on a large scale, and societies across the Arab world, I hate to generalize, but criticizing Hezbollah or Hamas or the Syrian Baath or the Iraqi Baath or the Iranian regime…is considered treacherous or a betrayal of the Palestinian cause today. That is no longer the case whatsoever. People look at the Palestinian cause and they realize that the backwardness that's seen in many countries across the Middle East is because of the exploitation and utilization of the Palestinian cause in order for these militant strongholds to keep their power.”

However, Katulis said that during his recent visit to attend high-level meetings in Riyadh, it became “clear” that the Israel-Palestine conflict was “not a priority.”

“I think there's a lot of high hopes and expectations from some in Israel and some in the pro-Israel community in the United States about some possibility of a breakthrough,” said Katulis, noting that the White House’s readout of the visit emphasized that Biden would be flying from Israel to Jeddah directly.

“What I heard from Saudi leaders is that they recognize that there is an aging leadership in the Palestinian authority. They recognize that, years ago, they used to just listen way too much to the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] and PA [Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, also referred to as Abu Mazen] leadership, that there’s a new generation that’s going to emerge,” he said.

“But they themselves quite likely don’t have the ability to shape that right now and that they need to study up a bit. This is Saudi speaking about Palestinians as a factor. And Jerusalem is a factor, but that there’s not much that can be done right now. I also think that the notion that the Saudis might announce some sort of Abraham Accords at this point seems so far-fetched,” Katulis added.

During his trip to Saudi Arabia, Biden is set to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)summit, which will also include Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan.

“…it would do them well to not only talk about these regional security dynamics at the GCC plus meeting, but also try to think of ways to make sure that countries like Jordan, which has a key equity with the with the Palestinians, is to [say] ‘OK, if we can't solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, what could we do to at least make things not worse and perhaps even slightly better for the Palestinian people?’”

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