Biden arrives in Saudi Arabia seeking reset amid tensions

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fist bumps US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Al Salman Palace, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia [Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court via Reuters]

President’s trip aims to reset US-Saudi relationship, with energy supply, human rights and security on the agenda.

US President Joe Biden has met senior officials including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, despite a previous promise to treat the kingdom as a “pariah” over the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Biden was greeted with a fist bump by the crown prince, also known as MBS, as he arrived at the royal palace in Jeddah on Friday.

There was little evidence of any warmth between the leaders. Until now, the US president had refused to speak to Prince Mohammed, the presumed heir to the throne currently held by his father, King Salman. Biden has been a vocal critic of the oil-rich kingdom for its human rights abuses, particularly the murder of Khashoggi.

The trip is designed to reset the US relationship with Riyadh and during which energy supply, human rights and security cooperation are on the agenda.

The Saudis held a subdued welcome for Biden at the airport in Jeddah, with none of the ceremony that accompanied his stop this week in Israel.

Biden was greeted by Mecca’s governor, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Reema bint Bandar Al Saud.

Prior to Biden’s arrival, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on board Air Force One that Biden would lay out “clearly and substantively” his vision for Washington’s engagement in the Middle East during his meetings in Saudi Arabia.

“He’s intent on ensuring that there is not a vacuum in the Middle East for China and Russia to fill, that American leadership and American engagement will be a feature of US policy in this region, and that we intend to play a critical role in this strategically vital region on an ongoing basis,” Sullivan said.

Biden was due to hold a bilateral meeting with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz at the royal palace in Jeddah and then the president and his team would have a working session with Prince Mohammed and Saudi ministers at the palace.

Energy and security interests have prompted the president and his aides to decide not to isolate the kingdom, the world’s top oil exporter and regional powerhouse that has been strengthening ties with Russia and China.

Ahead of the visit, a US official told the Reuters news agency that Washington was not expecting Riyadh to immediately boost oil production and was eyeing the outcome of the next OPEC+ meeting on August 3.

The visit will be closely watched for body language and rhetoric. US intelligence concluded that MBS directly approved the 2018 murder of Khashoggi, but the crown prince denies having a role in the killing.

Biden said on Thursday his position on Khashoggi’s murder was “absolutely” clear. Biden made his “pariah” comment less than three years ago after the journalist’s killing, while campaigning for president.

Biden said he would raise human rights in Saudi Arabia but he did not say specifically if he would broach the Khashoggi murder with its leaders. On Friday, Sullivan told reporters that Biden does not preview the issues he would raise with other leaders in order to “engage effectively diplomatically”.

Saudi ambassador to the United States Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, writing in the US magazine Politico, reiterated the kingdom’s “abhorrence” of the killing, describing it as a gruesome atrocity, and said it cannot define US-Saudi ties.

She said the relationship should also not be seen in the “outdated and reductionist” oil-for-security paradigm.

“The world has changed and the existential dangers facing us all, including food and energy security and climate change, cannot be resolved without an effective US-Saudi alliance.”

Biden boards Air Force One at Ben Gurion airport in Israel [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters] 

US seeks oil production boost

Biden will meet with a broader set of Arab leaders at a summit in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on Saturday.

The US is eager to see Saudi Arabia and its OPEC partners pump more oil to help bring down the high cost of gasoline and ease the highest US inflation rate in 40 years.

Saudi Arabia, alongside the United Arab Emirates, hold the bulk of spare capacity within the OPEC+ group, an alliance between the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other exporters, most notably Russia.

Brent crude prices are trading at just under $100 a barrel, having hit a 14-year high of $139.13 in March, as investors weigh new COVID-19 lockdowns in top importer China and recession fears.

Spare capacity within OPEC is running low, with most producers pumping at maximum capacity. It is unclear how much extra supplies Saudi Arabia could bring to the market and how quickly.

Biden said recently that he would not ask Saudi leaders directly to increase oil production. Instead, he would continue to make the case that all Gulf states should raise oil output, he said.

OPEC+ decided last month to increase output targets by 648,000 barrels per day (bpd) in August, ending record production cuts that it brought at the height of the pandemic to counter collapsing demand.

Sullivan confirmed that energy supplies will be on Biden’s agenda without offering details. “He will have a broad conversation about energy security, especially in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine,” Sullivan said. “And true to form, I’m not going to speak specifically about what it is that he’s going to raise.”

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, more than doubled the amount of Russian fuel oil it imported in the second quarter to feed power stations to meet summer cooling demand and free up the kingdom’s own crude for export, data showed and traders said according to the Reuters news agency.

‘Groundbreaking’ move

Biden will encourage peace and press for a more integrated Middle East during his trip, an administration official told Reuters. Topics include strengthening a truce in Yemen, “balance” in energy markets and technological cooperation in 5G and 6G.

Ahead of the visit, Saudi Arabia said it would open its airspace to all air carriers, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel, in what Biden described as a historic and important step towards building a more integrated and stable Middle East.

“Thanks to months of steady diplomacy between my administration and Saudi Arabia, it is finally a reality,” Biden said in a statement. “I will do all that I can, through direct diplomacy and leader-to-leader engagement, to keep advancing this groundbreaking process.”

Two years ago, Riyadh did not protest when the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain moved to normalise relations with Israel.

The US-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords established a new axis in the region, where Gulf states share Israel’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear and missiles programmes and proxy network. Saudi Arabia and Iran have for years vied for regional influence but launched direct talks last year in an effort to contain tensions.

The Saudi ambassador said US-Saudi efforts to ensure peace and security should focus on enhancing cooperation and “reinforcing a rules-based system” to confront the “vision of chaos promoted by Iran”.

During his visit to Israel, Biden and caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a joint pledge to deny Iran nuclear weapons, which the Islamic Republic denies seeking.



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