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Did Biden change his mind?

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

Is it safe to say that Washington has ultimately decided to put its best interests first, which are manifested in its relations with the GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, following some year and a half of fluctuation and indecisiveness, and after it signaled a retraction from these relations, and a withdrawal from historical bonds between the two countries?

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Major global events seem to have revived a political awareness among US President Joe Biden’s advisors that prompted a crucial shift in his Administration’s priorities, including rediscovering the necessity of strong relations with Saudi Arabia. As a matter of fact, the voices that opposed such a revival of relations with Riyadh were a minority, and even the Washington Post’s editorial, which belonged to that minority, was posted following the round of meetings, indicating that it was merely an expression of a personal opinion which failed to have resonance in Washington.

Over some year and a half, massive pressure mounted on Riyadh regarding thorny issues such as the war in Yemen, armament deals, dismantlement of missiles, restrictions on ammunition use, interference in Saudi management of regional and international affairs with China and Russia, efforts to lift the sanctions on Iran, the production and prices of oil, among other points of disagreement the sum of which caused a discord in relations between the two countries that, prior to that stage, remained allies for some 75 years. The discord has been widening, indicating that the US was departing from the entire region and heading instead towards East Asia.

From a realistic point of view, it is rather unwise to overlook the global shifts that are affecting US decision-making on foreign policy. For instance, the GCC countries are not anymore the largest oil exporters to the US, as the latter managed in applying the methods of cracking and shale oil. Likewise, Washington does not anymore see it necessary to have a presence in the region to safeguard its oil interests and protect the straits there, as a large portion of that oil goes to its competitors, such as China. At any rate, the criticism of Washington is not prompted by its choice to turn its back on the Gulf Region and its allies there, but rather by what it expects from them after its departure. For instance, it seeks to restrict their use of weapons but opposes their arms deals with China or Russia. Likewise, it indulges with Teheran in negotiations on lifting the sanctions, meanwhile disregarding the major risks Iran poses to the regional countries, and expecting them not to seek alternative alliance to fill the security gap.

There were four consecutive shocking events that apparently brought the Biden Administration back to the right track; the emergence of the Sino-US dispute last year and Washington’s subsequent punitive measures against Beijing, the Russian invasion of Ukraine that was labeled as the greatest threat to Europe and the NATO since World War II, the surge of oil and gas prices as a consequence of lifting COVID-19 restrictions and the Ukrainian crisis, and finally the rising levels of inflation that might erase the benefits of US economic recovery, thus jeopardizing the chances for Biden and his party in the forthcoming November mid-term elections.

Over months laden with crises, Washington was obliged to rethink the practicality of its international relations which are based on mutual, rather than unilateral interests. Energy is still a key weapon in wars that might have decisive implications, and in that domain, Washington failed to persuade Riyadh to raise its production, as meanwhile the White House was appeasing the Iranian regime and intending to unchain it with all the threats it poses to Saudi Arabia and the other regional countries.

What has happened? Did the Biden Administration retract from its stance on the Saudi role in Yemen, its proposed concessions to Iran, its tendency to interfere in the internal affairs of the Kingdom, and its tendency to reduce the latter’s armament? The Saudi Crown Prince’s refusal to take the telephone calls of President Joe Biden seems not to be motivated by a personal attitude, but rather by a number of disagreements that must be handled between the two countries. Meanwhile, a telephone call made by the Saudi side to the US was not enough to conclude the 15-month-old pending disputes or start a new mutual era, since the outstanding disagreements have not yet been genuinely resolved. Hence, the Saudi Crown Prince dispatched the Deputy Defense Minister, His Highness Prince Khalid bin Salman to Washington, where he met with US political and military leaders.

Did Biden back off from his former positions? Well, his new tough stance on Iran indicates it. As a matter of fact, he did not have to have this disagreement with Riyadh in the first place. Events have proven that Biden was in need of Saudi Arabia more than his predecessor President Donald Trump did during his 4-year term.

To sum up, it seems that a glimpse of realism, accompanied by an analysis of the recent crises of COVID-19, China, and the invasion of Ukraine resulted in an acknowledgement that the older alliances of necessity shall be revived, and they will reshape the mutual relations for a considerable time.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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