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  • Schuyler Beltrami

Biden Visits Saudi Arabia; Gesture Overshadows Meeting

(Photo: Reuters)

As Joe Biden was campaigning to become President of the United States back in 2019, he promised to make the kingdom of Saudi Arabia into a “pariah”. As Joe Biden’s approval ratings in the United States have reached levels even lower than his unpopular predecessor and the issue of high gas prices has become a key problem during his administration, President Biden was faced with no other choice than to formally visit the pariah in the Middle East. The inconclusive results of the meeting were overshadowed however by a simple greeting between the President and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

Realism over idealism

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has long been controversial for many Americans, including those within the government and within administrations of both Republican and Democratic presidents. The need to keep cordial relations with the oil-rich kingdom was seen a necessary evil. At the same time as American leaders denounced the Saudi government for human right abuses, the limitation of basic freedoms, and continued high levels of gender inequality, deals were signed between the two nations on matters both in the economic and military realms. Saudi Arabia has been a major regional power in the Middle East for decades and their opposition of Iran has made them into a key ally for the United States. However, this alliance has long been on shaky ground and the United States has maintained friendly relations with Saudi Arabia, while doing its best to ignore some of the more vicious parts of the Saudi regime. Then came the events in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2nd, 2018, where Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at the time an employee of the Washington Post and a resident of the United States, was killed at the Saudi consulate. The assassination, which the CIA said was personally ordered by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, seemed to be a turning point in relations between Saudi Arabia and many of its western partners, including the United States. Many governments condemned the actions of the Saudi government and some within the American government called for a complete suspension in diplomatic ties between the US and Saudi Arabia. While on the campaign trail in 2019, then candidate Joe Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the international scene in retaliation for the premeditated murder of Khashoggi. While now President Biden was able to stall a visit to the Kingdom for almost two years, his hand was forced by high gas prices in the United States, a key issue for voters in the upcoming midterm elections in the United States, elections in which President Biden’s Democratic Party are projected to lose, at the very least, their majority in the House of Representatives, as well as possibly their lead in the Senate as well. Needing to take some sort of concrete action in the mind of voters, President Biden agreed to visit Saudi Arabia and meet personally with the man who ordered the killing of Mr. Khashoggi: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Gestures over solutions

Mr. Biden’s arrival in the Saudi city of Jeddah came after his visit to Israel, in which the United States and Israel reaffirmed their commitment to stopping Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, with President Biden even promising to use the full power of the United States to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities. After visiting Israel and parts of Palestine, including occupied regions of the West Bank, Mr. Biden flew directly to the Saudi city of Jeddah, making him the first person to fly directly between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Upon arrival in the sprawling Saudi metropolis, Mr. Biden met immediately with Crown Prince bin Salman and greeted him with a fist-bump, a casual and provocative greeting for a man who Mr. Biden has, on multiple occasions, called out for the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Although the murder of the slain Saudi journalist did come up in the meeting between the two leaders, with Mr. Biden telling journalists that he did talk about the Crown Prince’s role in the murder directly to him, the key focus of the meeting was the United States hoping to persuade the Saudis to increase their production of oil, which could mean lower gas prices for Americans back home. The meeting with the Crown Prince did not lead to any tangible results for Mr. Biden who returned home to Washington after his time in Jeddah, but many see the meeting as laying the groundwork for two vital areas: increasing the supply of oil, and, perhaps more importantly in the long-term, reigniting the alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Although this would mean that the issue of the slaying of Mr. Khashoggi would take a back seat to the realities of global diplomacy, keeping Saudi Arabia as a friend in the increasing hostilities against Iran is a key position for the United States.

An unfulfilling trip

Mr. Biden’s time in the Middle East, although achieving symbolic gains, did not lead to many concrete solutions that may help with Mr. Biden’s popularity back home in the United States. Foreign affairs is never a main issue for voters, especially in mid-term elections, and the trip to Israel, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia will most likely only lead to net negatives for the President, with the picture of the fist-bump with the Saudi crown prince overshadowing a new defense deal with Israel or promises of economic aid to Palestine, both of which were announced on this most recent trip. For President Biden, his promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” of the international community was eliminated by the economic and strategic realities of politics; a pattern which has become all too familiar in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

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