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Biden Has a Lot to Gain in Saudi Arabia

His trip won’t lower gas prices, but it can shore up Washington’s global standing.

By , an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
U.S. President Joe Biden walks to Air Force One at Munich Airport in Munich, Germany, on June 28, after attending  the G7 Summit.
U.S. President Joe Biden walks to Air Force One at Munich Airport in Munich, Germany, on June 28, after attending the G7 Summit.
U.S. President Joe Biden walks to Air Force One at Munich Airport in Munich, Germany, on June 28, after attending the G7 Summit. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s meandering efforts to explain his about-face on Saudi Arabia—visiting the country this week after having dubbed it a “pariah” on the campaign trail—there remains much apprehension about his trip on both ends of the political spectrum. Progressives and human rights advocates worry the president will sacrifice U.S. values for short-term Faustian bargains in an attempt to secure cheap oil and expand Arab-Israeli normalization. Republicans and realists, who favor an interest-driven approach to foreign policy, aren’t sure there is enough to be gained by Washington on these fronts to justify a presidential visit.

These concerns are warranted. During his two-day stay in Saudi Arabia—which follows a jaunt in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories—Biden will be meeting the leaders of nine key Arab countries. They include the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence concluded ordered the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the leaders of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Gulf countries.

The United States’ Arab partners are, without exception, authoritarians with varying degrees of popular standing. And although they are dependent on Washington for their security, many have refused to shun Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. They also continue to expand their economic and military ties with China.

Despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s meandering efforts to explain his about-face on Saudi Arabia—visiting the country this week after having dubbed it a “pariah” on the campaign trail—there remains much apprehension about his trip on both ends of the political spectrum. Progressives and human rights advocates worry the president will sacrifice U.S. values for short-term Faustian bargains in an attempt to secure cheap oil and expand Arab-Israeli normalization. Republicans and realists, who favor an interest-driven approach to foreign policy, aren’t sure there is enough to be gained by Washington on these fronts to justify a presidential visit.

These concerns are warranted. During his two-day stay in Saudi Arabia—which follows a jaunt in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories—Biden will be meeting the leaders of nine key Arab countries. They include the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence concluded ordered the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the leaders of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Gulf countries.

The United States’ Arab partners are, without exception, authoritarians with varying degrees of popular standing. And although they are dependent on Washington for their security, many have refused to shun Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. They also continue to expand their economic and military ties with China.

Furthermore, U.S. calls for Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations to alleviate pressure on U.S. consumers by pumping more oil have largely fallen on deaf ears. With fuel prices at record highs, Biden has said Riyadh is working with his administration to help stabilize global oil markets. But in reality, Saudi officials and other countries in OPEC seem either unwilling or incapable of affecting major price change. They also continue to coordinate their oil output with Russia, which is not a member of the cohort.

Then there is Biden’s justification of his trip based on Israeli security interests. The president argues that his meetings in Saudi Arabia will expand and deepen the process of normalization between Israel and various Arab states begun by his predecessor under the banner of the Abraham Accords. Biden has suggested Israeli leaders are interested, highlighting that he will make an unprecedented direct flight from Tel Aviv to Jeddah. But on normalization, Riyadh remains noncommittal. Though there are whispers of security cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has preconditioned official ties with Israel on unlikely progress in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Given these challenges, many are wondering why Biden is bothering to travel to Saudi Arabia. But there are tangible returns he can expect from the high-stakes visit.

It is important to put Biden’s Middle East tour in a global context.

First, it is important to put Biden’s Middle East tour in a global context. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine heightened great-power competition, and, as part of his administration’s effort to revitalize U.S. alliances and partnerships around the world, the president has already traveled to Asia and Europe this year. It is natural for him to call on the Middle East, too. It is a part of the world that remains vital to U.S. national security interests and the global economy. Here, Saudi Arabia—with its strategic geographic location, abundant natural resources, and influence among Arab and Muslim-majority countries—cannot be ignored.

Second, while Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states are unwilling to rupture their ties to Russia and China due to economic and political realities (and are arguably incapable of doing so), there are more discreet, yet concrete, ways in which they can help the United States assert its global primacy. Washington, after all, is their indispensable security guarantor against Iran.

Saudi Arabia can utilize the considerable proceeds it has generated from selling oil to China to help Biden and the G-7 in their efforts to push back against Chinese economic encroachment elsewhere. Whether in Africa, Central Asia, or the Indo-Pacific, large-scale Gulf investments in development and infrastructure projects can challenge China’s efforts at global dominance via its Belt and Road Initiative. Saudi plans to sell a portion of its oil in the Chinese yuan, rather than the U.S. dollar, should also be shelved.

The Gulf leaders meeting Biden in Jeddah are flush with cash and have a free hand in deploying it abroad. They did so at the United States’ behest to counter the spread of communism during the Cold War—in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Yemen, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo)—and can similarly push back against China today. They can also help the Biden administration maintain stability by providing rapid humanitarian aid and productive investments in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Sudan, which are vulnerable to the twin shock of rising food insecurity and historic inflation.

Third, and perhaps more importantly given his domestic political challenges, Biden can secure assurances that a good portion of Gulf oil money is recycled back into the U.S. economy. This can be done by securing Arab commitments to invest in U.S. Treasury bills and U.S. businesses, as well as by encouraging U.S. companies to partake in bidding for large-scale projects in the Gulf. The development of cobalt mines, civil nuclear energy, Red Sea naval ports, and megacities are historic opportunities to elevate U.S.-Saudi economic cooperation.

Riyadh, which recently named its minister of state for foreign affairs to serve jointly as its climate envoy, can also be an important player in the Biden administration’s drive to promote a steady energy transition at home and abroad. Saudi Arabia has pledged to generate half of its energy needs from renewables by 2030 and has launched a massive tree-planting initiative with the goal of becoming carbon neutral. In the meantime, and until oil is no longer a dominant part of the global energy mix, Saudi Arabia could help develop greater refining capacity to reduce prices. This, however, will take time.

While Riyadh’s outsized role in the Islamic world and its relatively conservative society constrain it from openly and unconditionally normalizing ties with Israel, Biden can secure tangible—if more discreet—wins on this front, too. The kingdom is open to joining an integrated regional air defense network that protects Israel and Gulf states from Iran’s drones and ballistic missiles. Such a move would mark an unprecedented level of Israeli-Arab security cooperation and boost Washington’s leverage in ongoing negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program.

Of course, all these proposals come at a cost, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have their own expectations of Biden, who has previously criticized them in the harshest of terms. They expect U.S. guarantees that they will not again be left to fend for themselves if their cities and oil facilities are attacked by Iran or its regional proxies. They will want assurances that they can purchase the U.S. arms they need to defend themselves rather than having to secure them from Russia and China. And they will ask that the United States step up intelligence sharing and naval interdiction of Iranian weapons bound for Yemeni rebels.

These are difficult demands to make of a president whose public is wary of greater U.S. involvement in the Middle East, but they are worth considering if he is determined to challenge Russia’s adventurism and China’s economic assertiveness around the world. He can do so by keeping this strategic region—and its resources and waterways—firmly within the United States’ orbit.

Biden is going to Saudi Arabia to keep the United States first among nations, despite domestic grumblings about the need to promote U.S. values abroad and the truth that significant relief at the pump will remain a distant mirage. He deserves credit for that choice rather than being left to make excuses.

Correction, July 15, 2022: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that U.S. President Joe Biden visited Latin America this year. While he hosted the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June, he has not personally traveled to the region in 2022.

Firas Maksad is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. His expertise includes U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East as well as the geopolitics of Arab Gulf region and Levant. Twitter: @FirasMaksad

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