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Biden Needs the Saudis. Do They Need Him?

Soaring oil prices benefit the kingdom financially, so why would it agree to bring them down?

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attends a bilateral meeting.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attends a bilateral meeting.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attends a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office between then-U.S. President Barack Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia at the White House in Washington on Sept. 4, 2015. Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at U.S. President Joe Biden’s planned Saudi Arabia trip, the third Ukraine Contact Group meeting, and more news worth following from around the world.

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Biden’s Saudi Gamble

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at U.S. President Joe Biden’s planned Saudi Arabia trip, the third Ukraine Contact Group meeting, and more news worth following from around the world.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Biden’s Saudi Gamble

U.S. President Joe Biden ended speculation over his planned trip to Saudi Arabia by confirming on Tuesday that it would indeed go ahead, with the president expected to make the trip as part of a tour from July 13 to July 16 that includes stops in Israel and the West Bank.

Biden is set to make the journey despite outcry from human rights groups and figures within Biden’s own party, who have argued that a presidential visit gives a tacit blessing to Saudi Arabia’s rights abuses.

For Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, the trip is akin to “slapping a bargain Band-Aid on the gaping wound that the U.S.-Saudi relationship has become.”

“Clearly, America should be working to build a healthier relationship with Saudi Arabia, but that simply isn’t possible unless and until the United States confronts the deep dysfunction at the core of that relationship—a dysfunction defined by the blind eye the U.S. has turned to Saudi’s support for Jihadi terrorism, the spread of Wahhabism, and its other destabilizing activities in the region,” Parsi wrote in an emailed statement.

Biden’s visit is a climbdown from his vow to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the campaign trail and clashes with moves early in his presidency to freeze arms sales and pull back U.S. support for the war in Yemen.

Still, the thaw was coming even before the rise in oil prices, with Washington discreetly playing host to the crown prince’s brother, Khalid bin Salman, this time last year.

Despite the White House’s olive branches, disgust at the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi operatives, (a killing the U.S. intelligence community determined was carried out on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman), is still felt in Washington. That has most recently manifested itself in the unveiling of Jamal Khashoggi Way, the new name for the street the Saudi Arabian Embassy calls home.

Like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before him, Biden is swapping tough rhetoric for appeasement, hoping that a sufficient show of rapprochement will convince the previously shunned crown prince to bless an oil production increase to help calm global oil prices—as well as reduce the price of U.S. gasoline.

As U.S. midterm elections approach, domestic economic concerns have taken priority for the Biden administration, and it has begun attacking domestic energy companies for profiteering amid the squeeze on prices. “Exxon made more money than God this year,” Biden said on Friday following a speech on his plans to rein in inflation.

If it’s clear why Biden needs Saudi Arabia at this moment, it’s less clear why Saudi Arabia needs Biden, with high oil prices helping prop up Saudi government coffers.

This is especially evident as the Saudis can—if polls are accurate—simply wait Biden out. The second half of Biden’s presidential term is set to be even more deadlocked than the first, with Republicans likely to take control of the House of Representatives, if not the Senate, in November. (That has its own foreign-policy implications, as American Enterprise Institute fellow Danielle Pletka explored last week.)

A second term for former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2024, a distinct possibility, would be the icing on the cake for Riyadh, which would expect none of the friction that has defined the U.S.-Saudi relationship under Biden.

Despite huge military investments, security is still a major concern for the Saudis, however, and an explicit U.S. defense commitment would provide the quid pro quo the kingdom wants from Washington.

“One thing after another has shaken their faith in the idea that the cavalry will be coming, and they want something other than words that will convince them that we are committed to their security,” Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (and FP columnist), told Foreign Policy.

It’s not likely to be a one-way street, with Cook expecting Biden to push Saudi Arabia to make commitments on two difficult issues to provide him with political cover with Congress: improving its human rights record as well as ties with Israel.

If Biden’s journey is solely based on boosting production, it may end up a waste, with a tight oil market leaving little slack.

“The thing is, there isn’t much more oil in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to really significantly change the market,” Daniel Yergin, an oil historian and vice chairman at S&P Global, told Bloomberg. “The supply situation is so razor thin.”

Janan Ganesh, writing in the Financial Times, said the time is right for Biden to make the trip and abandon a simplistic democracy versus autocracy framing while he’s at it. “The west is locked in a struggle against two specific autocracies. Not, as some would have it, against autocracy,” Ganesh writes. “The challenge from Russia and China (U.S. Republicans would name Iran as a third) is daunting enough without volunteering for a showdown with a complete mode of government.”


What We’re Following Today

Ukraine group meets. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hosts the third meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group, comprised of nations supporting Ukraine’s defense, on the margins of a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. The meeting comes days after Ukrainian representatives published a wish list of military equipment they want Western partners to provide as Ukraine continues to fight Russian forces in the east of the country.

EU readies Northern Ireland response. The European Commission is expected to publish its response to the United Kingdom after the British government published draft legislation that would unilaterally alter the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement. EU officials have already threatened legal action over the proposed changes, which they say are in breach of international law.

U.K.-Rwanda deportation flight. The first deportation flight from the United Kingdom to Rwanda was scheduled to leave Tuesday night after numerous failed domestic legal challenges; the departure was canceled at the last minute after the European Court of Human Rights intervened. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday hinted he would seek to leave the European Convention on Human Rights to prevent future flights from being obstructed by the court. “The legal world is very good at picking up ways of trying to stop the government from upholding what we think is a sensible law,” he said.


Keep an Eye On

Ethiopia peace talks. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Tuesday announced the formation of a new committee to pursue peace talks with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) more than 18 months after the conflict began. In a letter published on Tuesday, the TPLF said it supported a “credible, impartial and principled peace process.”

WHO to meet on monkeypox. The World Health Organization will bring together an emergency committee of experts on June 23 to discuss whether to declare the spread of monkeypox as an international health emergency. Ibrahima Socé Fall, the WHO’s emergencies director for Africa, said the meeting was not meant to cause alarm. “We don’t want to wait until the situation is out of control to start calling the emergency committee,” he said. So far this year, more than 1,600 cases and almost 1,500 suspected cases have been reported in 39 countries.


Odds and Ends

Denmark and Canada finally put an almost 50-year border dispute to rest on Tuesday, agreeing to split Hans Island, an 0.5-square-mile island equidistant from the coasts of Canada and Greenland, roughly down the middle.

The barren rock had become the site of the so-called Whisky Wars, with Canadian and Danish forces planting flags (and bottles of Canadian whisky or Danish schnapps) to mark their territory over the years.

“I think it was the friendliest of all wars,” Mélanie Joly, Canada’s foreign minister, said on Tuesday. “I’m happy to see that we’re resolving it with friends, partners, and allies. … It’s a win-win-win.”

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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