Global lens

Biden in Saudi Arabia: a ‘mortifying’ climbdown?

Visit showed White House talks a good game about human rights – until there’s something it needs

So much for America’s moral authority, said Fred Ryan in The Washington Post. When Joe Biden vowed on the campaign trail to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) a “pariah” for ordering the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, “the world had every reason to think he meant it”.

Biden was, after all, a seasoned statesman who surely knew better than to make bold foreign policy statements he wasn’t prepared to back up. How mortifying, then, to see the president in Jeddah last week meeting MbS and other Saudi royals. The message to the world was clear: “American values are negotiable.” The White House talks a good game about human rights until there’s something it needs more – “such as cheap oil”.

There’s no denying it, said Yasmine Farouk in The New York Times: the Saudi visit represents a climbdown for Biden. Over recent months, Riyadh has repeatedly snubbed his administration. In March, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, MbS reportedly even declined a call from the White House – but Biden’s visit could still reap benefits for both parties.

The fact is, the US needs Saudi Arabia, which remains the oil market’s major swing producer and the biggest buyer of US arms. The kingdom’s cooperation is crucial to Washington’s efforts to counter Iran, normalise Israel’s relations with the Arab world, and limit Russia and China’s influence in the Middle East. MbS, for his part, will need access to US technology and venture capital if he’s to make a success of Vision 2030, his plan to overhaul the Saudi economy.

Saudi Arabia no longer regards the US as an indispensable security partner, said Karen Elliott House in The Wall Street Journal. It’s looking instead to China and Russia. “China’s arms transfers to the kingdom have grown by nearly 400% over the past four years – mostly drones, which the US refuses to sell to Riyadh.” As for Biden, he still seems keener on improving relations with Iran than with Saudi Arabia.

There is, in other words, little interest on either side in a genuine reset of this relationship. For the 79-year-old president and the 36-year-old crown prince, it’s about personal rehabilitation. Biden wants more Saudi oil to ease petrol prices for US voters before November’s midterm elections; MbS wants to improve his image and move past the Khashoggi murder. Of the two, MbS is more likely to get his wish.

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