Biden must reconcile with Saudi Arabia or China will win

Ramadan, the holy month of fasting and reflection for Muslims, begins this weekend. Going from morning to night without food or water humiliates believers and restores their attention to harmony with Allah and humanity. This could be an opportune moment for President Biden to visit the kingdom and seek forgiveness for a growing list of Saudi grievances that have severely damaged Washington-Riyadh relations. Notably, the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is refusing to pump more oil to help Mr Biden in his quest for lower energy prices.

Saudi resentment has been mounting for a decade. President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was interpreted here as a signal that the US has higher priorities than protecting the Middle East and global oil supplies. But the serious damage didn’t begin until President Biden went on the offensive, calling Saudi Arabia a “pariah state,” removing Patriot missiles protecting Saudi oil facilities from attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and striving to a revive the nuclear deal with Tehran. a nemesis of Al Saud.

During his first year in office, President Biden refused to even speak to Crown Prince Mohammed. And in February 2021, Mr. Biden released the Central Intelligence Agency’s conclusion that the Crown Prince had ordered the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. When Russian oil abruptly disappeared from world markets in March, the president contacted Riyadh, but Crown Prince Mohammed declined his call.

In the 40 years that I have been visiting this country, anger at America has never been so deep or so widespread. “The relationship is dead,” declared a senior Saudi businessman. “Obama dug the grave and Biden put the lid on the coffin.”

State Department officials are less apocalyptic but no less scornful: “You criticize us for oil production and call it dirty to please climate activists, and yet when you’re in trouble you turn to us and say, ‘Pump more.’ “Officials here insist the kingdom will not increase production without the approval of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Plus, which includes Russia. “Right now there is no rational commercial or financial argument for increasing production,” says one economics official, “only a political one.”

Both countries must put aside wounded pride and mend their relationship, which truly underpins global economic security. When the kingdom imposed an oil embargo on the US in 1973, Riyadh privately assured Washington that oil would continue to flow uninterrupted to all American military installations worldwide. But now, with Houthi attacks regularly targeting Saudi oil facilities, the Biden administration shows little concern for Saudi security. While Mr Biden agreed last month to resume deliveries of Patriot missiles to the Kingdom, he has not yet restored the Houthis to the US terrorist list. Worse, according to reports from the Vienna talks, he is considering removing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations if it pledges not to attack Americans.

Saudi spade is dangerous. The Kingdom’s ties with China are strong and growing. Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in 2016. China buys 1.8 million barrels of oil from the kingdom every day and is now Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner. The Chinese welcomed Crown Prince Mohammed to Beijing in 2019 and, unlike President Biden, have shown great deference to the young prince. At the March meeting of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation in Islamabad, the Chinese foreign minister declared that China and Saudi Arabia are “good friends and good brothers”. . . who support each other in their core concerns.”

But Beijing cannot protect the Saudi oil fields or the sea routes that allow its oil to reach world markets. Only the US can do that at the moment. So it’s time for Riyadh and Washington to put their heads together and work together on a new security strategy.

“If the President of the United States wants to visit, he is welcome. We don’t encourage or discourage it,” a State Department official said when asked about rumors of a possible Biden visit. He refuses to discuss plans, if there are any.

But from conversations with various Saudi officials, it seems clear that Mr Biden will need to visit Riyadh if he is to thaw the cold relationship. From the perspective of the White House, it will be difficult for him to do so without losing face. Mr Biden’s reception would inevitably be compared to that of President Trump, whose first foreign visit received a spectacular royal hug here. And the photo of Mr. Biden shaking hands with Crown Prince Mohammed would be visible evidence that he ate humble cake.

Ramadan offers some cover. Saudi officials are ready to receive world leaders during the holy month, but an official visit with honor guard and all the trimmings is not possible during the fast. “Only one working visit is allowed during Ramadan,” said a Saudi official, who recalled that President Obama’s first trip to the kingdom was a short working visit, taking him straight from the airport to King Abdullah’s farm for a private meeting became. Mr. Biden might appear in an attitude of working to solve major strategic issues, rather than as a president looking for a photo opportunity and royal reception. This would avoid direct comparisons with Trump’s visit or that of Mr Xi, who was promised a Trumpian reception here for his first post-pandemic trip outside of China. Mr. Xi is expected after Ramadan, perhaps as early as May.

The Saudis want more than a photo op. They want a serious strategic discussion on a range of issues, but most notably how the US intends to protect its Gulf allies and Israel from Iran. The Biden administration’s determination to sign a new nuclear deal with Tehran is another major source of Saudi doubts about the US’s role and reliability in the region. “We’re used to the US having a clear sense of direction, but this administration has been unpredictable,” says one official. “It has struggled with strategic decisions.” Iran provides the Biden administration with legitimate justification for a “working visit” to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has been a key US ally for almost 80 years. If Mr. Biden wants to repair the relationship, it would be wise to do so sooner rather than later. Its pride may take a short-term hit, but the price to pay for US interests to simply stand aside while Saudi Arabia orbits China is far greater.

Ms. House, a former editor of The Wall Street Journal, is the author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future.

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Ethan Gach

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