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Oil trumps human rights as Biden forced to compromise in Middle East | Joe Biden

For all the careful choreography of Joe Biden’s Middle East tour, the White House made a major miscalculation when the president finally came face to face with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. for the first time.

Before Air Force One left Washington, the administration said Biden would avoid physical contact and shake hands due to an increase in Covid cases, a move widely seen as allowing him to avoid create an uncomfortable photo shoot with the powerful heir to the throne. .

But the image of the two leaders leaning toward each other, hesitant smiles on their faces as they bumped their fists, came across as more relaxed and familiar than the US president probably anticipated.

Biden came to power determined to take a tougher line with Donald Trump’s beloved strongmen and autocrats. He had a particular enmity towards Prince Mohammed, the ambitious 36-year-old who deposed his uncle to become the next king, fought a ruinous war in Yemen and locked up or killed his critics.

During the election campaign, following the horrific murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state”. He has since declined to speak directly to the crown prince, instead liaising with his ailing father, King Salman. Shortly after arriving at the White House, Biden released US intelligence findings – suppressed by Trump – which concluded that Prince Mohammed had approved the operation targeting the Washington Post journalist at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.

When the US president brought up Khashoggi with the de facto Saudi leader on Friday, the prince reportedly hit back, accusing Washington of hypocrisy in failing to investigate the murder of US-Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, and for allowing the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison.

Yet Riyadh has been one of Washington’s closest strategic partners for decades for a reason that no US president can ignore. Biden has heard the siren song of the kingdom’s vast oil reserves: The war in Ukraine has unleashed chaos on global oil markets, and he can no longer refuse the call.

President Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
President Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Saturday. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

The president stopped in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories for three days before visiting Saudi Arabia last week, delighting Israeli leaders with his direct engagement with the country’s security situation with Iran and disappointing Palestinians saying that “the ground is not ripe” for resuming peace talks. In terms of deliverables, he only secured the lifting of the Saudi ban on Israeli flights over the kingdom and pledges to 4G access in the West Bank and Gaza.

The pageantry in the Holy Land, however, was never the focus of Biden’s tour. “The other parts of the trip were just expanding on the real reason Biden came to the Middle East, which is meeting Prince Mohammed,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi political analyst.

“It was the only thing that mattered. And it’s not just oil. Biden belatedly realized that Saudi Arabia was no longer just dependent on America — it also had important relationships with China and Russia. These countries sell weapons and have an influence on Iran that the United States does not have.

“The fact remains that if you want something done in the Middle East, you can’t just ignore Saudi Arabia.”

It was never going to be easy to make amends with the notoriously vengeful de facto ruler of a kingdom where honor is valued above all else. Despite the apprehensions of many Democratic voters, who accuse Biden of shelving promises that his foreign policy would be based on human rights, the president was compelled to try.

Brent crude hit a 14-year high of $139.13 a barrel in March, fueling global inflation and a global cost of living crisis. In the United States, inflation is at 9.1% and accelerating, which should result in the loss of seats for the Democratic Party in the November midterm elections.

Saudi Arabia is home to the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves and is the producer with the biggest influence on its price, but Biden returned home on Saturday unable to make any major announcements on increased supply oil world. The maximum the Saudis would publicly commit to was a promise to pump more oil if there was a shortage in the market, although there could be other welcome news for the president at the Organization of Exporting Countries summit. of oil (OPEC) next month.

Besides oil, at a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Jeddah, Biden was keen to reassure Middle East leaders that Washington will not “walk away” from the region “and leave a vacuum in filled by China, Russia or Iran”.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has widened emerging cracks in US relations with the Gulf monarchies, which no longer see Washington as a reliable bulwark against Tehran; oil states in the Middle East have notably refrained from supporting the Biden administration’s attempts to isolate Moscow.

They are also unlikely to heed the president’s outgoing message that “the future will be won by countries that unleash the full potential of their people…where citizens can question and criticize leaders without fear of reprisals”.

“It was a symbolic trip, and ultimately it’s a big win for MBS, at the expense of Biden paying a political price,” Shihabi said, using the crown prince’s well-known acronym.

Was it worth it? This may not seem the case at the moment. But the White House has its eye on the longer term; in Jeddah, Biden said he was proud that “the era of ground wars in the region, wars that involved large numbers of American forces, is not underway.”

No American leader will engage in another Afghanistan or Iraq. The president is also pushing for Arab states such as Saudi Arabia to have yet to normalize relations with Israel, in order to join the emerging regional defense alliance against Iran.

Despite the rhetoric about maintaining “active, principled American leadership,” the Middle East’s chess pieces are moving and the United States is ready to give up. And while Biden could turn out to be a one-term president, Prince Mohammed could well shape the region’s future for many decades to come.

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Post expires at 9:16pm on Thursday July 21st, 2022