Joe Biden in Riyadh: Lessons from failure


The US President's visit to Jeddah as part of the GCC+ 3 summit (Gulf Cooperation Council + Egypt, Jordan and Iraq) in mid-July ended without tangible results.

If, in form, the very fact that Joe Biden visited the kingdom testified to a certain warming of the US-Saudi relationship, in substance, the United States failed to obtain a firm commitment on the main objectives of this trip.

An episode that illustrates the increasingly obvious decline of American influence in the Middle East.

The attempt to revive a deteriorated relationship

July 15 is by the governor of Mecca, Khalid al-Faisal, that Joe Biden is received upon his arrival at Jeddah airport. This welcome by a secondary political personality is a clear sign: the tenant of the White House, who during the 2020 election campaign had held very harsh words with regard to the kingdom and had undertaken to “rebalancing” the bilateral relationship did not arrive in conquered land.

Returning to a certain extent to his previous posture, the American president made the choice, in this summer of 2022, to meet the leader de facto of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). A more pragmatic approach, which can be explained by the context of the war in Ukraine and the surge in world oil prices, but which has earned it a number of reviews from the United States, accusing him of dragging the issue of human rights under the rug.

In response to these criticisms, Joe Biden made a point of publicly declaring that the affair of the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been the subject of a discussion with Mohammad bin Salman and that he confronted the latter with his responsibility. This assertion, however, has been refuted by the Saudi side. MBS himself would have retaliated by evoking in front of his interlocutor the sexual and physical abuse committed by American soldiers on detainees at the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib and the murder of the American-Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the occupied West Bank – episodes that have markedly tarnished the image of Americans throughout the Middle East.

This desire to stand up to the United States had already been expressed last March, when MBS had refused to talk to Joe Biden about increasing Saudi oil production. Times have changed: in terms of energy policy, but also in terms of regional security, the Saudis no longer wish to play the role of Washington's auxiliary. On these two issues, Joe Biden is well "left empty-handed".

Failure on the energy issue...

The first – central – objective of the visit was to obtain from the Saudis a clear commitment in favor of an increase in oil production which would make it possible to control crude oil prices, Riyadh with the largest oil reserves in the world.

In a book published in 2011 and which remains highly topical, Carbon Democracy, the British political scientist Timothy Mitchell underlines the vital importance of oil resources for the functioning of today's democracies and recalls the key role of hydrocarbons and armaments in the construction of the globalized capitalist economy. According to Mitchell, the growing use of oil has made it possible to operate the capitalist machine under the best conditions and to stabilize Western democracies.

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Securing oil supplies and controlling the global energy market also formed one of the foundations of American hegemony (alongside military might and the ability to elicit adherence to a unipolar order) – hegemony today. today more and more undermined.

If the control of the world energy market represents a crucial stake for the United States, they however struggle to convince their allies to rally to their orientations. Indeed, it took several months of pressure to bring the 23 OPEC countries to agree on June 2 on a increased oil production. This decision was taken in consultation with Moscow, the Saudis remaining particularly concerned about maintain a balance between, on the one hand, the alliance with the United States and, on the other, their relations with Russia.

On July 19, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs recalled the importance of partnership with Moscow with regard to the stability of the oil market, a position excluding any questioning of the OPEC+ alliance against the background of the exacerbation of the conflict between Russia and Western countries.

While there are no exact figures indicating the demands made by Joe Biden to MBS, the press and political commentators have recalled that one of the objectives of his visit was to ask the Saudis for an increase in their oil production. . But the latter did not make a firm promise as Biden wanted. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan has made it clear that the kingdom does not share the same sense of urgency, explaining Sourcing policy decisions would be determined by the market:

“We listen to our partners and friends around the world, especially consumer countries. But at the end of the day, OPEC+ is following the market situation and will provide the necessary energy. »

The Saudi position is therefore explained by its commitment to OPEC +, a body bringing together the 13 members of OPEC and ten non-OPEC oil exporters including Russia and co-chaired by Riyadh and Moscow. Riyadh wants to preserve the stability of the world energy market without significantly increasing production as Washington wishes so as not to harm Russian interests.

… and on the security issue

In addition, US hopes to formalize the creation of a regional military alliance that would include the six Gulf Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait), as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq to deal with Iran and its allies – a putative alliance dubbed by NATO Middle Eastern commentators orArab NATO – did not materialize.

While protecting Israel remains a major focus of American foreign policy, the approach of the midterm elections to be held next November has also prompted Biden to promote this project already mentioned in May 2017 under the Trump administration, which would be welcomed by some voters attached to Israel's security.

Although the proposal received wide media coverage after theinterview given by King Abdullah II of Jordan to CNBC in which it claims to support a Middle Eastern version of NATO, Saudi Arabia dismissed this hypothesis. According to the claims of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the topic was not even raised at the joint GCC+3 summit with the United States in Jeddah. The diplomat indeed recalled that " there is no Arab NATO and this issue is not on the table”.

The main obstacle to the realization of such an alliance remains the transformation of the regional context and the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Riyadh and Tehran have renewed the threads of dialogue. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia fears the destabilizing potential of Iran, it nevertheless shows the will to reduce tensions with the latter and to find an agreement, in particular on the Yemeni file. As noted by one analysis note published by the Washington Institute, "the ongoing dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran through Iraq […] seems to be making some progress, particularly in the context of discussions on an agreement for the mutual opening embassies between Riyadh and Tehran".

Yemen, Khashoggi, Russia: the angry files

Thus, on the two main objectives of the visit, Riyadh did not meet the American demands. If this failure is not unrelated to the differences that undermine the relationship, it seems above all that the transformation of the balance of power that underlies the international system and the opportunities for partnership are accelerating the emancipation of traditional allies that were once docile.

On the one hand, the undoubted personal enmity between Biden and MBS and, more generally, the recalibration of the American policy towards Saudi Arabia have rekindled concerns in Riyadh and led to a crisis of confidence between the allies. Several cases have given a "stop" to the normal course of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Within weeks of taking office, the Biden administration had announced the end of arms sales for the Saudi war effort in Yemen, the removal of the Houthis – an ally of Iran in Yemen which threatens the security of Saudi territory – from the list of foreign terrorist organizations, and the decision to Biden not to have a direct dialogue with MBS in a context where the American president has expressed his wish to resume discussions with Iran (a decision to which Washington has therefore just reconsidered).

But the quarrel is truly consumed after the episode of the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the publication of a classified report by the American intelligence services which concludes that MBS personally approved the operation aimed at "capturing or killing" the journalist.

Murder of journalist Khashoggi: the role of “MbS” highlighted in an American report, France24, February 25, 2021.

Moreover, the desire of the United States to reduce its material presence in the region and its diplomatic restraint in the face of Houthi attacks that repeatedly targeted Saudi territory reinforced the sense of abandonment of the Gulf monarchies in terms of their security.

This American policy reinforced Saudi Arabia's desire for autonomy and led it to reconsider its strategic options. Riyadh's growing empowerment is illustrated by the strengthening of its military cooperation with Russia, formalized by an agreement signed in August 2021. This orientation, which tends towards the exploration of other commercial and security partnerships, is confirmed today in the context of the war in Ukraine.

As rightly noted by one Middle East Institute analysis, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries will have more weight in a post-war world order in Ukraine:

“Europe's energy needs are dire, but even the energy-rich United States has seen soaring gasoline prices. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and other energy producers in the region know they have influence in this changing environment. »

General reconfiguration

Beyond the announcement effects, this summit was a barometer to measure the ability of the United States to influence the policy of its allies. In a changing world order, new power relations are upsetting the existing balance between Washington and its traditional allies. Threats shift, common interests crumble and stable alliances crumble, giving way to transactional alliances built around evolving interests, a strong trend confirmed by the context of the war in Ukraine.

If, despite the crisis of confidence, the ties between Washington and Riyadh have not been fundamentally called into question, they nevertheless seem to be in full reconfiguration, a new deal revealing the accelerated decline of American influence.

Lina Kennouche, Doctor of Geopolitics, University of Lorraine

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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