Should Biden go to Saudi Arabia?
Amid signs of a partial thaw in relations, a Yemen truce, Israeli nudging, and high oil prices, the US administration is assessing if Biden should travel to Saudi Arabia
“We have no travel to Saudi Arabia to preview,” an NSC spokesperson said.
“I think it is fair to say, there is an internal discussion about how to approach the Saudis and particularly whether Biden should travel there,” former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro
“The question is whether the Saudi leadership, particularly MBS, wants to fix it, or is similarly minded, that the ship needs to be righted,” Shapiro. “The question of whether Biden goes to Saudi Arabia likely rides on whether that kind of reset structure can be put in place.”
“The relationship was at a low point…. and both sides…wanted some substantive progress before there could be a high-level meeting. It seems that in the recent weeks, there has been meaningful progress,” MEI’s Firas Maksad
Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have improved somewhat in recent months, according to multiple regional experts, current and former U.S. officials, following a series of recent steps and consultations that saw a truce in Yemen take hold in April, CIA Director Bill Burns meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Jeddah in April, and the crown prince’s brother, Saudi Deputy Defense Secretary Khalid bin Salman (KBS) travel to Washington last week for consultations at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department.
Those and other recent US Saudi consultations have been undertaken in part with an eye to determine if it makes sense for US President Biden to travel to Saudi Arabia, possibly in late June or July when he is tentatively expected to travel to Israel, said former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro. Israel, which sees eventual normalization with the Saudi Arabia as a major strategic goal, is another factor encouraging a Biden administration effort at a rapprochement with Riyadh.
“I think it is fair to say, there is an internal discussion about how to approach the Saudis and particularly whether Biden should travel there,” Shapiro, now a Distinguished Fellow in the Atlantic Council's Middle East programs, told me in an interview May 23.
“I think the prevailing understanding in the administration is that the bilateral relationship has gotten very strained in ways that are potentially harmful to our interests,” Shapiro said. “And that there’s the need for a reset that stabilizes the relationship, that ensures Saudi Arabia remains firmly aligned with the United States and does not drift towards Russia and China;…and of course is responsive to the needs of the United States and allies in moments of crises, to increase oil production, to lower oil prices, and toughen sanctions on Russia and diversify energy supplies for Europe.”
“That has become a strategic issue,” Shapiro said. “And it is something that they need to try to fix.”
“The question is whether the Saudi leadership, particularly MBS, wants to fix it, or is similarly minded, that the ship needs to be righted,” he added. “The question of whether Biden goes to Saudi Arabia likely rides on whether that kind of reset structure can be put in place.”
The White House said it had no presidential trip to the kingdom to yet preview. It noted US diplomacy helped establish the first ceasefire in the Yemen war in several years. It also noted the travel of NSC Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and US energy envoy Amos Hochstein to the kingdom this week, as Axios first reported, but said U.S. engagement with Saudi Arabia was about more than asking Riyadh to pump more oil.
“We have no travel to Saudi Arabia to preview,” a National Security Council spokesperson told me today (May 27).
“U.S. diplomacy over recent months helped establish the first comprehensive ceasefire in Yemen in over six years,” the NSC official continued. “Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein were just in the region to follow up on conversations on a range of issues, including Iran’s destabilizing activities, ensuring stable global energy supplies and other regional issues.”
Meaningful progress after relations hit a low point
US-Saudi relations were in a bad place, but have improved in recent months, said Firas Maksad, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“The relationship was at a low point…. and both sides, but particularly the Saudi side, wanted some substantive progress before there could be a high-level meeting,” said Maksad, who recently returned from a visit of think tank experts to the kingdom. “It seems that in the recent weeks, there has been meaningful progress.”
Maksad suggested that CIA Director Burns’ trip to Saudi Arabia in mid-April helped set the stage for an upturn in relations. The consultations of Saudi Deputy Defense Minister KBS in Washington last week further helped explore issues on the table that both sides would like to work on.
With a truce that has been holding since Ramadan, Yemen is at the moment a more positive issue in US-Saudi relations, Maksad said.
“The U.S. administration is satisfied on the progress made there in recent months,” he said. In addition to the Ramadan ceasefire holding to date, he said, the easing out of former Yemeni president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the creation of a Yemeni Presidential Council that is more inclusive could potentially help the parties overcome some personality issues that had been impeding progress towards ending the Yemen war. And the reopening of the airport in the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a in May to some flights is also viewed as a very positive step, he said.
“We are at a pivotal moment in Yemen,” US Yemen envoy Tim Lenderking said at a pledging conference for the country in the Netherlands on May 11. “In the past month alone, we have seen some of the most significant progress in years in our joint efforts to bring peace to Yemen. For the first time in six years, a UN-led two-month truce is holding with unequivocal support from the United States and the international community.”
“It is critical that the parties secure the current truce by adhering to its terms, including opening roads to contested cities like Taiz and facilitating flights to and from Sana’a,” Lenderking said. “The parties must now urgently work together and with the UN to turn the current truce into a comprehensive ceasefire and inclusive political process.”
US replenishing Saudi stocks of systems to defend from Houthi drones
The US administration has provided the Saudis with Patriot missiles to repel Houthi missiles, the Wall Street Journal reported. A source understood the administration was expected to replenish Saudi stockpiles of air to air missiles used to shoot down Houthi drones, which the U.S. assesses the Saudis are using defensively. The Saudis have also asked for precision guided missiles to target Houthi drones inside of Yemen, which the source understood might not be forthcoming, because the administration feared they could be used offensively and harm Yemeni civilians.
“Over the past several months we have been working with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors to help them strengthen their air defenses in response to a rising number of aerial attacks from Yemen,” a State Department official said in response to a query.
“There were more than 400 cross-border attacks last year launched by the Houthis with Iranian support, which affected Saudi infrastructure, schools, mosques, and workplaces, and endangered the civilian population, including 70,000 U.S. citizens living in Saudi Arabia,” the State Department official said.
“The United States has a number of tools available to assist Saudi Arabia to strengthen its air defense capabilities,” the official said. “These include Foreign Military Sales of equipment such as air-to-air missiles, which, deployed from Saudi aircraft, have been instrumental in intercepting the persistent Missile and Unmanned Aerial Systems attacks on the Kingdom. We can support Saudi efforts to engage with its neighbors to transfer additional U.S.-origin capabilities as needed from their inventories.”
“U.S. support for Saudi-led Coalition offensive operations in Yemen has ended, including the suspension of two previously pending air-to-ground munitions deliveries,” the official said.
The matter of oil prices is more tricky, Maksad said.
Senior Saudi officials contend that even if they pump more oil, there is a lack of western refining capacity to convert much of that crude oil into gasoline, Maksad, also an adjunct professor at George Washington University, said. But analysts believe the OPEC+ consortium is currently pumping 2 million barrels per day less than it pledged, due to many of the OPEC+ countries apparently not being able to meet their quotas. The current OPEC+ output agreements are also due to expire in September.
“I walked away with a sense that there may be room for flexibility despite some of the technical constraints,” Maksad said, referring to a meeting between US think tank experts and senior Saudi officials, including energy executives.
Gregory Brew, a historian who studies oil and US foreign policy, said the Saudis might have some spare capacity to increase oil production a bit—or, what could perhaps be almost as helpful, he suggested, is to signal their intention to do so.
“They might agree--I don't know if they can increase production by more than five hundred thousand barrels per day in the near-term, maybe one million barrels per day in the longer term,” Brew, now Kissinger Visiting Scholar at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University, told me this week, referring to the Saudis. “They've been sticking to the OPEC+ production increase schedule for months now, but it's possible they have more spare capacity.”
“But even an announcement of an *intention* to boost production would have a calming effect on prices--not much, but some,” Brew said. “The problem would be whether Saudi Arabia could get the rest of OPEC+ to go along with them on this--unity has been key.”
The White House for its part said it would be wrong to reduce US discussions with Riyadh on energy security as simply being about asking them to pump more oil.
“To view engagement with Saudi Arabia on energy security as asking for oil is simply wrong and a misunderstanding of both the complexity of that issue as well as our multifaceted discussions with the Saudis,” the NSC official said.
“OPEC+ will make its own decisions, as it always has,” the NSC official said. “We are in consultations with all relevant producers about market conditions, including Saudi Arabia.”
Despite such protestations, however, what each side could get from a high level meeting clearly matters, and a Biden trip the kingdom is not without political risks, said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation and senior fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations.
“My first reaction, is it is highly risky for Biden to trek over to Saudi Arabia and kiss the ring of MBS and not know what he is getting in return,” Kaye said. “And we know what the return has to be: oil output.” Even though, she added, the US administration “won’t ever say it.”
In terms of if a US visit could take place in the context of possible interim steps to increase Saudi-Israeli normalization, some experts suggested Saudi Arabia was probably not yet ready to roll out major public steps at this point.
“I spoke with an American source who came back from Riyadh last week,” Israeli journalist Nadav Eyal, who has been reporting on Saudi Israeli moves, told me. “He suggested to keep Israeli hopes as modest as possible.”
“I cannot see why Biden would go there if he’s not going to get oil production plus some sort of positive regional signal,” Eyal continued.
“As to the security architecture, it already exists, including these important meetings,” he said. “Washington is trying to inject itself and take some credit, but most of it goes to the Israeli defense apparatus.” Still, he added, “Jerusalem sees U.S. involvement as crucial.”
“I think that the Biden administration is looking to rebalance…its relationship with the kingdom,” Dr. Sanam Vakil, Chatham House Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow in the Middle East program, said. “All of these discussions we are hearing about are the administration’s effort at finding pragmatic entry points, that will reset a relationship that has probably gone off course for both sides.”
“I think there are competing interests here,” Vakil continued. “You have the Israeli viewpoint that is thinking quite boldly and broadly to push the narrative of normalization at a pace that is probably faster and more ambitious than the Saudis are willing to embrace.”
“There needs to be a sequencing to this,” she continued. “It cannot happen on this pace.”
“I think the Saudis do want to reset relations with the United States,” she said. “But the terms have to be of interest to both parties. They don’t want to just be fuel tankers any more.”
“The Ukraine war is serving as an opportunity for the region to remind and reassert whatever leverage they have,” she said.
A crown prince assessed to have ordered operation that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi
How might Biden handle a meeting with the Crown Prince whom the U.S. intelligence community assessed to have approved the Saudi government operation that brutally killed Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi in 2017? One expert recently briefed by the administration ahead of a Gulf trip said he did not recall Khashoggi’s murder being discussed.
If understandings about core issues in the bilateral relationship could be reached and the administration decides to proceed with a visit, Biden could “also meet with Khashoggi's family to convey continued U.S. focus on the need for accountability for his murder,” Shapiro suggested in a recent tweet thread laying out the thinking for a trip.
What is driving the Biden administration to try to patch up relations with Riyadh “is the belief that we are entering a new world of great power competition,” largely focused on China, suggested Trita Parsi, with the Quincy Institute. And some people in the administration believe “you need to make sure the Saudis and Emiratis are allied much more tightly to us.”
The State Department said the United States remains committed to building a sustainable strategic partnership with the kingdom.
“Senior U.S. and Saudi leaders have spoken at length about the critical importance of strategic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia and how they can deliver benefits to both countries,” the State Department official said.
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