18.07.2022 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Joe Biden’s Risky Strategic ‘U-turn’ on Saudi Arabia


A Middle Eastern state that Joe Biden once vowed to make “pariah” has now become pivotal to the success of the US plot to encircle and defeat Russia, both militarily and economically. This, first and foremost, is the cardinal objective behind Biden’s ‘U-turn’ on his Saudia policy and meeting with a CIA-designated ‘murderer’, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (M.B.S.). While it is interesting to see the criticism that Biden is facing at home for this change of policy, this is hardly the first time that Washington has embraced authoritarian leaders. As John Bolton, former US National Security Adviser, recently confessed, he (the US “deep state”) planned coups many times, which means the US has often played a key role in bringing ruthless, undemocratic leaders to power many times across many countries. Embracing M.B.S. is, therefore, not unusual, nor is Biden’s total disregard for discarding his own idea of placing human rights at the centre of his foreign policy approach. This is as tactical as hypocritical and typical of Washington’s foreign policy.

The most recent ‘U-turn’, however, is linked to the ways the war in Ukraine has created conditions for Saudia Arabia’s permanent shift toward Russia and China as their key ally in the Middle East and the one that can tilt global political economy via oil production and supply to any direction. Biden’s visit aims to force-stop that shift and bring Saudia back to the US axis. As Jake Sullivan told the media, “because the world is becoming more geopolitically competitive” the US needs to “remain intensively engaged in the Middle East.” That’s why Joe Biden did not find it hard to conveniently place immediate interests ahead of his so-called principled stand on human rights and the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The Middle East is, in simple words, more important than human rights, making real politics more useful than the idealism of protecting and upholding human rights. As Biden himself ‘defended’ his visit – and ‘U-turn’ – on Saudia in an opinion piece in The Washington Post,

“A more secure and integrated Middle East benefits Americans in many ways. Its waterways are essential to global trade and the supply chains we rely on. Its energy resources are vital for mitigating the impact on global supplies of Russia’s war in Ukraine … We have to counter Russia’s aggression, put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China, and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world. To do these things, we have to engage directly with countries that can impact those outcomes. Saudi Arabia is one of them.”

Of course, Biden’s immediate objective is to convince M.B.S. to produce more oil i.e., get rid of the OPEC+ deal with Russia and, thus, help the US and the rest of Europe control the constantly rising cost of living and high inflation tied to high oil and gas prices.

Saudi Arabia is pivotal to the US against China as well. The US needs billions of dollars from private investors from all over the world to finance its US$600 billion infrastructure plan to counter China. Saudi Arabia alongside other Gulf states is one such country for the Biden administration.

But, while Saudis may show a willingness to make global investments as part of their own policy to diversify their oil-dependent economy, the Saudis are unlikely to sacrifice their ties with China and Russia on the altar of US security guarantees. There is already a possibility of Saudia selling its oil to China in the Yuan, with Saudia using the same currency to pay for its imports from China. This possible deal between the world’s largest oil producer and the second largest economy could seriously limit the extent to which the US can manipulate countries like Saudi Arabia as allies against China.

Washington’s ability to convince Russia to break out of the OPEC+ deal is also extremely limited. As it stands, it was the Saudis who convinced Russia to do this deal and maintain stable oil production levels, oil supply and prices. This is an arrangement that benefits Saudia as much as it benefits Moscow. Riyadh, so far, has little to no reasons to discard this deal, especially as Saudi leaders know that Biden’s shift to a pro-M.B.S. stand is tied directly to war in Ukraine and that the US president could scale back his rapprochement after the end of the war.

That the Saudis are not expecting any breakthrough and/or are not too interested in offering any concessions to the US is evident from the fact that Biden was received by the Governor of the Makkah region rather than any official from the central Saudi leadership. When Donald Trump visited Saudia, his first foreign visit as the US president, he was greeted by M.B.S. himself.

Therefore, even though Biden met M.B.S., reports show that no breakthrough happened except that the Saudis keenly told Biden that they would help Washington only to the extent it suits their interests. Beyond that, the Saudi Kingdom is unlikely to reverse its ties either with China and/or Russia. There is simply no reason to do that.

The past one and a half year of Biden’s ‘principled distance’ from Saudia has already left an opening that the Kingdom has used to diversify its ties. Riyadh and Moscow’s constantly expanding cooperation includes building a nuclear reactor and deep and broad military cooperation.

As irony would have it, Saudia Arabia, despite being the world’s largest oil producer, has nearly doubled its import of oil from Russia to feed power stations to meet the increasing electricity demand and free up its own crude oil to meet export demands. As the data show,  Saudi Arabia imported 647,000 tonnes (48,000 barrels per day) of oil from Russia via Russian and Estonian ports in April-June this year. That was up from 320,000 tonnes in the same period a year ago.

Therefore, Biden’s visit, underpinned by tensions and temporary US interests, is unlikely to reverse the trajectory of Saudi foreign policy and/or the way the war in Ukraine has enhanced the Gulf’s global importance.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: