President Joe Biden wound up his two-day visit to Saudi Arabia on the 16th of July. He received a lukewarm reception in Jeddah, where instead of King Salman or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Mayor of Jeddah received him. Earlier, he had a two-day stopover in Israel. He also had a meeting with the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas Abu Mazen. While a visit to Israel was a ritual which every American president performs during his visit to the Middle East, it was the Saudi visit which attracted much international attention. Biden also addressed a virtual meeting of the leaders of I2U2, comprising Israel, India, the UAE and U.S. – an emerging Middle East NATO.
With the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, the rising oil and food prices and Iran’s active pursuit of nuclear weapons, President Biden’s visit assumed immense importance for the region and the globe. Two major issues dominated President Biden’s agenda, for which he had to set aside his rigid stance toward Saudi Arabia. First, his appeal to the Saudi leadership to raise oil production to arrest the oil prices negatively impacting the American consumers and, second, Iran’s refusal to comply with the American brief on the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
President Biden’s Middle East policy has been criticized in American political circles. The criticism reminded Mr Biden of strong views about Saudi Arabia soon after the murder of Saudi-born Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, allegedly at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Mr Biden declared Saudi Arabia as a pariah state, which the democrats played up loudly throughout Biden’s election campaign and after he was elected president. However, Mr Biden did not realize that in international politics, situations may change with unintended consequences, leading to embarrassment; consequently, circumstances changed, and President Biden had to swallow his pride. The following salient features of Biden’s visit are noteworthy:
First, during bilateral talks, Biden received a frank and blunt response from the Crown Prince on the Khashoggi case. According to the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan: “the crown prince referred to American excesses and human rights violations in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the 2021 drone strike in Afghanistan that wiped out a whole family.” While regretting the incident, MBS reminded Mr Biden of American human rights violations.
Second, referring to human rights, the Crown Prince rejected the American notion of human rights and asserted Saudi Arabia’s Muslim and Arab identity, which he described as “very dear to us”, adding, “we are tremendously proud of our country and our values. And if the U.S. wants to deal with only countries that are exactly like it, the list of countries is going to be very, very short.”
Third, in a speech at a Saudi summit of Gulf Arab states as well as Egypt, Jordon and Iraq, Biden assured those gathered that the U.S. would remain fully engaged in the Middle East. He categorically stated that “we will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran”. However, the Saudi Crown Prince displayed a conciliatory approach towards Iran. He alluded to recent talks with Iran as “positive”, but they did not reach results”. MBS confirmed that Saudi Arabia’s “hand is extended” to Iran to achieve normal relations. Saudis’ confident approach to issues bedevilling the region, with particular reference to Iran, was a message to Biden that the Arab states are not solely beholden to the U.S. Meanwhile, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s advisor and former Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharazi, in an interview to Aljazeera T.V., welcomed Saudi Arabia’s statement of extending a ‘hand of friendship’ and expressed Tehran’s readiness to ‘talk and restore relations with Saudis to normalcy’.
Fourth, while referring to the Iranian nuclear programme, MBS said that “diplomacy was the only solution to Iran’s nuclear program.” MBS’ statement contradicts what the Western media has speculated about a likely alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel to establish a common defence against Iran. Saudi Foreign Minister also scoffed at speculations about a possible “military or technical cooperation with Israel”, adding that there was no such thing as an “Arab NATO.” This would also call into question the efficacy of I2U2, a so-called Middle East NATO or QUAD, which creates ripples across the Middle East and elsewhere, including Pakistan. The inclusion of India in the alliance would certainly erode Pakistan’s confidence.
Fifth, the Saudi Foreign Minister did not give much value to opening Saudi airspace for civil aviation, stressing that this did not indicate any prelude to a subsequent decision, implying future recognition of Israel. Many discouraging factors would keep the Saudis from recognizing Israel, the foremost being Palestine’s statehood status as envisaged in King Abdullah’s two-state formula. Although President Biden alluded to the two-state solution, his sympathies were clearly with Israel, which is gradually swallowing the Palestinian territory. He failed to discourage Israel from pursuing an apartheid policy against the hapless Palestinians.
Sixth, President Biden’s primary purpose in visiting the kingdom was to obtain Saudi consent for increased oil production in the wake of Russia’s boycott. However, Saudi Foreign Minister said that the “summit did not discuss the issue of oil production, adding that OPEC + continues its work to assess the markets and what they need.” He reiterated the earlier statement from the Saudi crown prince that the “Kingdom’s maximum production capacity stood at 13 million barrels.” The kingdom currently produces around 11 million barrels a day. Therefore, Biden’s expectations of offsetting Russian oil’s shortfall with enhanced Saudi production would not be met.
Finally, Kamal Kharazi dropped a bombshell by admitting that Iran has attained the ‘technical capability to build a nuclear bomb’ but hastened to add: “we do not intend to do so”. He further added that “in just a few days, we increased the uranium enrichment from 20 to 60%, and we can easily increase it to 90%.” The question is whether Saudi Arabia would put up a resistance to the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons by joining a coalition that includes Israel or it would adopt the path of a dialogue with Iran and look for the regional solution? While it may take a while to decide about the future course, it is becoming apparent to the Saudis that they cannot rely on the American promises, especially when there is mistrust between President Biden and MBS.
The Washington Post commentary by a senior analyst aptly summed the visit: “The trip was worth it to his (Biden’s) hosts in Israel and Saudi Arabia who each got what they wanted: Carte blanche to the continuation of an apartheid system in Israel and an official end to the Saudi crown prince’s pariah status…. It is unclear what the U.S. got from this trip.”
Note: This article appeared in BOL, dated 22 July 2022.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.