Responding to news indicating that he backed off from his electoral promise to relinquish Saudi Arabia, US President Joe Biden initially replied by saying that he might visit Israel but probably not the Kingdom. Later, following the leak of further confirmed news on a potential visit to Riyadh, he said that he might very well head there but would probably not meet the Saudi King or Crown Prince.
However, a week later, further circulated reports made him confess that he was going to participate in the GCC Consultative Summit hosted by Saudi Arabia, and to which the leaders of the US, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan were invited. He added that he will meet the convening leaders there.
President Biden’s evasive replies lack cleverness because they are simply untrue. Nobody believes them. Not even that minority that opposes his visit to Riyadh. The President thinks that by resorting to evasiveness, he can avoid embarrassment, especially since he had made a promise during the elections, which he is now about to break.
Everyone, including his friends and opponents, knows that he will eventually visit Saudi Arabia and meet up with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, probably more than once and in private. Everyone knows that the President is not telling the truth at all. Hence, the question arises of why would he expose himself to such an embarrassing situation again?
While a presidential candidate, former US President Donald Trump had said even worse things about Saudi Arabia than Biden or any other previous US president. However, he convened with his administration’s leading figures once he started his presidential term. He quickly decided to make Riyadh the first overseas capital he would visit on a presidential tour.
Compared to Trump, President Biden seems to be a more cautious politician who wishes to get closer to Saudi Arabia, but through evasive rhetoric and lengthy approaches. He dispatched several his acting officials over the last few months to meet with the Crown Prince, including the US Secretary of State and the CIA Director. Similarly, the US Chief of Staff visited Al Diriyah Joint Forces Command in Riyadh. The US Administration hosted Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman. He met with the US National Security Advisor and the Secretary of Defense.
Before the recent major global events, President Biden started efforts to mend the relationship with Saudi Arabia early on. In October 2021, he dispatched his National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan to Riyadh, some four months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the price hike of oil barrels to $80. In other words, the US Administration is fully aware of the priorities of its national interests.
However, Biden, who wished to appear with a variant political approach than Trump regarding relations with Saudi Arabia – probably in response to pressure by distinct sides – has wasted his time attempting to appease a minimal sector in the US. Eventually, he ended up prioritizing US’s higher national interests.
Nevertheless, Washington needs to mend its relations with its major partners significantly as the conditions on the global level are worsening rather than improving, particularly with the mounting threatening geopolitical stances of Iran and China, let alone the Russian war in Europe, which revived oil and gas as two effective weapons in the international geopolitical game.
At any rate, Biden is not the first US President to have disagreements with Saudi Arabia, and the history of Washington’s ties with Riyadh has had several electoral thorns. Meanwhile, all US presidents – with no exception to the best of my knowledge – become good friends of Saudi Arabia once they make it to the White House.
It is customary for presidential candidates to try to appease US segments regarding issues such as women’s rights, oil, Israel, or the churches. Even during normal times, when US delegations met with their Saudi counterparts, they suggested to the latter hearing observations made by the former on issues like “reservations on the status of Saudi women” without having to comment on them.
It indicates that such observations are made only to appease sides in the US that later would scrutinize the minutes of such meetings to make sure that these observations were made clear by the US Government to Riyadh. It was the method according to which both parties met up and skipped discussing any controversial issues. Most of the problems that US official delegations had earlier raised have become passe following the critical social and economic shifts in Saudi Arabia.
Amongst other thorny and controversial issues, Riyadh wishes to keep Russia as a significant oil reserve that can guarantee stability in the oil market. It also aspires to preserve China as a primary importer of its oil. Last but never least, it would never accept Iran’s takeover of Yemen, which is situated in its southern backyard, as Tehran already did with Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip.
Hopefully, suppose the two nations’ leaders meet up in mid-July as expected. In that case, they might work together to resolve these disputes and develop a mutual agreement. In the meantime, this should not give the false impression that US-Saudi ties are at their best nowadays.