How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
U.S. President Joe Biden began his term determined to reverse his predecessor’s habit of cozying up to dictators, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia. In February 2021, Biden pinned the blame for the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on MBS, declassifying a U.S. intelligence report that tied the assassination directly to him. Over a year later, however, it appears that the president plans to travel to Saudi Arabia in the first Middle East visit of his presidency. For those who saw Biden as a champion of human rights, it is a grave disappointment: rewarding MBS with a handshake and photo op on the crown prince’s home turf would amount to an admission that autocrats can get away with murdering their opponents, so long as they keep the oil flowing.
But the problem is not just that a presidential visit to Riyadh would so obviously illustrate a compromise on principles. It is also that Biden probably will not gain anything meaningful in return. Help with domestic oil prices would be nice, but given the tight oil market in the midst of the Ukraine war, it’s not clear that the Saudis could do much even if they wanted to. A major breakthrough on the normalization of Israeli-Saudi ties does not appear to be in the offing, either. Nor is it realistic to expect that this trip could reverse the Saudis’ close relationships with both China and Russia. If he follows through on his plans to visit Riyadh, Biden will be making a bad deal: exchanging near-certain reputational damage for the mere possibility of modest triumphs. It is a visit that should never have been planned.
The first part of Biden’s planned Middle Eastern trip is less controversial: every American president goes to the Middle East, and it would be hard to imagine Biden turning down Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s invitation to visit the United States’ closest regional ally. But the current moment is not ideal. Passions are running high after months of rising violence between Israelis and Palestinians, including the killing of a Palestinian-American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, in May. Unless Biden addresses the growing evidence that the Israel Defense Forces are responsible for the killing and presses Israel for accountability, his visit could inflame rather than calm tensions. Israel likely expects the first visit from Biden as president to signal an unequivocal commitment to its security and to shift attention away from Palestinian grievances and toward the challenges posed by Iran. A stopover from Biden is unlikely to please anyone.
The real mistake, however, was to add Saudi Arabia to the itinerary. Given the surge in oil prices caused by the war in Ukraine, increased oil output surely tops Biden’s wish list for a visit. In the United States, the cost of a gallon of gasoline hit a record $4.67 in the first week of June. So it was a welcome development when, on June 2, OPEC and its allies, a group known as OPEC+, announced that they will increase oil production in July and August. It is not clear whether that decision will have more than a modest impact on prices at the pump in the United States, nor that Biden can yield additional concessions that would benefit Americans.
The Saudis and other OPEC+ members will ultimately have their own interests in mind when considering future increases in oil production—including their own incentives, independent of U.S. pressure, to avoid depressing global demand for oil. Moreover, the Saudis are not likely to break with the Russians, who co-chair the OPEC+ group, to respond to U.S. pressure indefinitely. The Saudis themselves have reaped significant benefits from rising oil prices. In the first quarter of this year, Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, reported an 82 percent jump in profits over the last year, with a quarterly income rising from $22 billion to $40 billion. The Saudis have also made it clear that they blame the high price of oil on factors other than their contribution to supply, such as insufficient investment in refining capacity, and that they are uninterested in releasing much more supply. “The kingdom has done what it can,” a Saudi prince told an audience at Davos in May.
In light of this reality, Biden cannot expect a visit to Riyadh to wring out much more supply. It’s also possible that the Saudis, having pocketed a presidential visit, either reverse course after the summer or, when the United States asks for additional supply if prices do not drop, say that they can’t do more. Plus, MBS is unlikely interested in doing Biden any favors, especially when he sees a Saudi-friendly Republican Party likely taking over Congress next year—and perhaps even the return of his greatest political ally, Donald Trump, in 2024.
For those who saw Biden as a champion of human rights, it is a grave disappointment.
It is also unclear that a stop in Riyadh would do much to help normalize Israeli-Saudi relations. True, MBS is eager for better relations with Israel and supports the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan brokered during the Trump administration. But the Palestinian issue still constrains even MBS, and the recent killing of Abu Akleh, the Palestinian-American journalist, only raises the costs of reaching out to Israel. The Palestinian cause still resonates among the Arab public, and the official Saudi position, in line with its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, continues to condition normalization with Israel on the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The Biden administration may tout a smaller concession from MBS as a foreign policy win. According to reports in the Israeli press, Biden is poised to announce a Saudi agreement to allow Israeli airlines to fly over its airspace, which the Israelis have been seeking as a step toward normalization. But from the perspective of U.S. interests, such a modest deal would hardly justify a presidential visit, which risks the credibility of a president who claims that he is putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, a presidential visit to Riyadh is not necessary at this time to facilitate full Israel-Saudi normalization, let alone a smaller step such as an agreement on airspace. Arab states are pursuing these policies because doing so is in their own security and economic interests. The Biden administration need not continue the practice begun during the Trump administration of sweetening these agreements with concessions, such as arms sales or a premature presidential visit.
Some point to the exigencies of great-power competition to justify a pilgrimage to Riyadh. Biden must go there, it is said, to keep the Saudis on the side of the United States and out of the orbit of China and Russia. But it is unrealistic to expect that high-level U.S. visits or multibillion-dollar arms sales will keep Middle Eastern countries away from China or Russia, given the relationships they have developed over recent years. China continues to expand its economic investments and trade with the region because it sees the Middle East as a key component in its Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, Russia’s military interventions, particularly in Syria, have given it a regional foothold that will be difficult to undo, even with mounting pressures from its costly war in Ukraine. U.S. partners in the region remain reluctant to take sides against Russia and join international sanctions in response to its brazen invasion of Ukraine. Hedging is the predominant trend in today’s Middle East; a mere presidential visit is not likely to alter that.
Biden came into office genuinely interested in reversing his predecessor’s destructive policies in the Middle East. It would be ironic, then, if he ended up with an agenda that looks remarkably similar to Trump’s. It isn’t exactly touching the orb—the infamous moment in 2017, when Trump visited Riyadh and, standing by King Salman, placed his hand on a glowing sphere—and the Biden administration has none of the corruption that infused Trump’s regional policy. But by sidelining human rights, backing authoritarianism, doubling down on military commitments, and reinforcing a perception that the Saudis are at the center of U.S. security policy in the region, Biden is running the risk of imitating Trump’s approach. If Biden is going to the Middle East, he should make it count by putting his own signature on regional diplomacy rather than by continuing the reckless policies of his predecessor.
There are alternatives. Biden does not need to meet MBS in Riyadh. If he wanted to add a regional dimension to his Israel trip, it would be better for U.S. interests to hold a regional meeting in a more neutral Arab Gulf country like Oman. Such a gathering could focus on efforts to de-escalate conflict, including, for example, transforming the extension of the UN-brokered truce in Yemen into a durable peace agreement. Distasteful as it would be, Biden could engage with MBS in a multilateral forum. A regional meeting would allow for the inclusion of other partners, de-emphasizing personal disagreements and bilateral quid pro quos and focusing instead on common interests in support of ending the region’s bloody conflicts. A wide range of issues that affect the lives of people in the Middle East could (and should) also be on the table, such as food security, the serious impact of climate change, and economic development.
Any presidential visit to a foreign country is a high-stakes affair, and the stakes in Saudi Arabia could not be higher. The key question is whether Biden will accomplish anything of lasting value to U.S. interests to justify such a transparent compromise on principles. There are other ways to achieve U.S. aims in the region, including the goal of having a working relationship with Saudi Arabia, without damaging the president’s credibility and undermining American values.
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