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Biden Visits Saudi Arabia

The U.S. president is due to meet Gulf leaders in Jeddah before a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives in Israel
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives in Israel
U.S. President Joe Biden descends from Air Force One at Ben Gurion International Airport during Biden's visit to Israel on July 13. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at Biden’s Saudi Arabia visit, the future of U.S. climate policy, Britain’s next prime minister, and more news worth following from around the world.

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Biden’s Saudi Reset

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at Biden’s Saudi Arabia visit, the future of U.S. climate policy, Britain’s next prime minister, 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 Reset

U.S. President Joe Biden leaves Israel today for the final leg of his Middle East tour, stopping in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah for talks with Gulf leaders followed by separate meetings with Saudi King Salman and his heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Similar to Biden’s optimistic early domestic agenda, Biden’s approach to Saudi Arabia has been forced to evolve, as the fallout from war in Ukraine and a sluggish recovery from the coronavirus pandemic make Riyadh’s oil wealth more important for Washington.

Biden famously pledged to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” during a campaign debate, and he took some of that energy into office: He declassified a U.S. intelligence report linking Mohammed bin Salman to the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, froze U.S. offensive arms sales to the kingdom (for now), declared an end to U.S. support for Saudi operations in the war in Yemen, and—much to the crown prince’s annoyance—has only dealt with King Salman, the current head of state if only in name.

Mohammed bin Salman, for his part, has not tried too hard to cozy up to a man he seems to have wished had lost the 2020 election. He has reportedly snubbed Biden’s calls, shouted at U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and (so far) refused Biden’s pleas to pump more oil to help bring down prices. He’s also more than hedged his bets on U.S. politics: The fund he oversees has invested $2 billion in a company run by Jared Kushner, former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law.

So if there is no love lost between the two men, today will show how much the crown prince wants to invest in the relationship. Although the two are expected to meet later today, we should see a declaration of intent the moment Biden steps off Air Force One.

It’s not yet known who is due to greet Biden off the plane, but such matters of protocol carry significance: In 2016, when then-U.S. President Barack Obama was welcomed on the tarmac by the governor of Riyadh, it was considered a major snub. Trump, by contrast, was received by King Salman himself on his 2017 presidential visit.

For Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, Biden’s controversial visit is just the price of being a superpower, and the Saudis are too powerful to freeze out. Writing in Foreign Policy earlier this week, Maksad explored what Biden can gain from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations—including helping push back Chinese influence and cajole them into investing some of their oil profits in the United States.

It’s also, as FP columnist Steven A. Cook wrote last month, a lesson in the limits of U.S. policymaking. “Biden may have been sincere in his desire to incorporate values in his foreign policy,” Cook wrote, “but the bottom line is that there is little he can do to compel authoritarians bent on political control to respect human rights, and even less so when said authoritarians are sitting on top of a lot of oil.”

About that oil. Are Biden’s conversations in Jeddah going to bring down gas prices? Probably not. That’s not down to Biden’s powers of persuasion but due to the limits of Saudi Arabia’s oil production capacity. French President Emmanuel Macron let that fact slip on camera at last month’s G-7 summit, telling Biden that the United Arab Emirates was at “maximum” production while the Saudis could only increase “a little more.” In an ironic twist, the poor global economic outlook has helped U.S. gas prices plunge by almost 40 cents per gallon since a $5 a gallon average four weeks ago.

Time for a rethink? U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, writing in Foreign Policy on Wednesday, called for an updating of the Washington consensus that realpolitik should reign in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. “When the chips are down, the realists argue, we need Riyadh to pick us—and continue to supply oil at an affordable price for our economic well-being,” Murphy writes.

“Well, since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the chips have been undoubtedly and firmly down. And not only has Saudi Arabia failed to deliver—for all intents and purposes, it has picked the other guys.”

Murphy argues for Biden not to shy away from the issue of human rights. He calls on Riyadh to release dissidents from prison and back down from pursuing them abroad, and to pursue peace, not just a cease-fire, in Yemen. “Because if nothing changes,” Murphy writes, “we will continue to bear a significant moral and strategic cost for our close alliance with the kingdom while getting too little in return.”


What We’re Following Today

Biden’s climate agenda. A key spending bill to fund Biden’s climate policy agenda has run aground, as Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, has sought to remove hundreds of billions of dollars in climate-related spending from a reconciliation bill in internal negotiations. With Democrats expected to fare poorly in November’s midterm elections, it’s likely that any U.S. moves on climate change will need to come solely from presidential authority.

Draghi stays. Italian President Sergio Mattarella rejected Mario Draghi’s resignation offer on Thursday, after the Italian prime minister failed to receive support from the Five Star Movement on a social spending bill, fracturing Draghi’s multiparty coalition. Mattarella’s pushback gives Italian parties time to cobble together an alternative arrangement and head off an early election.

Mordaunt’s rise. Penny Mordaunt, who briefly served as Britain’s defense minister under Theresa May, has emerged as a front-runner in the race to become the country’s next prime minister. She follows hot on the heels of former chancellor Rishi Sunak, who leads the leadership race with just five candidates remaining. If Mordaunt retains enough support to make it to the final round—when the Conservative Party’s membership votes on the top two finishers—one poll suggests she would defeat Sunak. She and the other remaining candidates must first navigate two televised debates this weekend before a further culling on Monday.


Keep an Eye On

Yellen in Bali. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is in Bali, Indonesia, today for a meeting of G-20 finance ministers, where she is continuing her persuasion campaign around establishing a price cap on Russian oil. Speaking earlier today, Yellen called out her Russian counterparts, saying that they, too, bore responsibility for the “horrific consequences” of the war. Canadian Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland went a step further, telling the Russian officials: “It is not only generals who commit war crimes, it is the economic technocrats who allow the war to happen and to continue.”

BRECSSIT? The BRICS, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, could soon become a longer acronym, according to BRICS International Forum chief Purnima Anand. Anand told Russian media that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt had all shown “an interest in joining and are preparing to apply for membership. Separately, Indonesia and Argentina are also considered prospective members of the bloc.


Odds and Ends

Aristotle Aguirre, the mayor of Mulanay municipality in Quezon in the Philippines, has instituted a new “smile policy” for local government workers, calling for “strict compliance” when facing the public. Aguirre made the policy by executive order, claiming it will boost morale. He has yet to provide details on how his order will be monitored.

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

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