From “Pariah” to Partner: Why President Biden is Going to Saudi Arabia

Joe Biden is traveling to the Middle East for the first time as President, with stops in Israel, Palestine — and most notably Saudi Arabia.

As a candidate for president, Biden called the Saudi government a “pariah.” Just weeks after taking office, he released an assessment from the US intelligence community revealing that US intelligence believes that Mohammad bin Salman approved of the operation that lead to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.  Yet in the face of high oil prices and the perceived need to re-calibrate US alliances in the region, Biden apparently feels compelled to make this trip.

Kristin Diwan is senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC . We kick off discussing the recent history of US-Saudi relations — going back through key moments of the Obama and Trump administrations before having a broader conversation about what this trip says about both Biden’s approach to the Middle East and the Saudi government’s key foreign and domestic policy priorities.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

What Have US-Middle East Affairs Looked Like Since the Obama Administration?

Kristin Diwan [00:02:31] When I travel in the Gulf region, what I hear more than anything is frustration about the inconsistency in U.S. foreign policy towards the region and we definitely have seen some pretty big changes from one administration to another. Before I get into those details, though, I think there’s one thing I’d like to underline, and that’s that whether we’re talking about the Obama administration, the Trump administration, now the Biden administration, that’s now three administrations that have shared one overarching objective, and that’s to spend less of our diplomatic energy on the Middle East. From all three administrations, it’s important just to keep in mind, they’ve all been talking a lot more about wanting to see more burden sharing from our partners in the region and I think that message really has been received. So, one thing that we see when we look at the region now is that our partners have some skepticism about the full commitment of U.S. policy there and they have been trying to either act alone more often or to seek alternative security partners. So that’s part of the environment that’s been created, I guess, by all three administrations.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:41] And yet we seem drawn in, regardless.

Kristin Diwan [00:03:45] It is interesting, too, because I think there are real differences in how all three administrations have approached the region. We look back first to the Obama administration. I think part of what we see is each administration reacting to the one that came before it and not wanting to repeat those mistakes. So, Obama came in on the tail end of the Iraq war and seeing that as a really negative for American foreign policy and not wanting to get involved in another war in the Middle East. And so that really defines his desire to stay out for the most part of the Syrian war and to try to get out of the Middle East region and his way of going about that was really through the JCPOA agreement with Iran. And this was basically looking at the region, figuring out what he thought was the biggest threat to the United States, and they saw that in the Iranian progress towards developing their nuclear file and perhaps a nuclear weapon, so that was really where he put most of his energy. And that meant from a Saudi standpoint, the focus was really not on Saudi Arabia, but more in at least coordinating with what Saudis saw as their main rival in the region.

What was the state of US-Saudi affairs under the Trump administration?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:59] And then Trump administration comes along. How was the Trump administration’s approach to Saudi Arabia, specifically, the same or different from that of his predecessor?

Kristin Diwan [00:05:11] Quite different. Much like Obama rejected his predecessor, Trump came in completely trying to basically undo what Obama saw as his chief achievement, which was the JCPOA agreement or this nuclear agreement with Iran. And, of course, the Trump administration came out and eventually pulled out of the agreement with Iran and instead effectively reversed that and deployed, you know, what they called a maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian government and that basically meant getting much closer to the Gulf allies of, you know, Saudi Arabia and some of the other Gulf states. And I think when you look at the Trump policies, even on Yemen, Yemen was sort of brought in and seen just as another arm of this pressure that they were putting on Iran. So, it wasn’t seen as much on as its own independent policy, but very much in line with that. A second objective the Trump administration had was to be more sympathetic of Israel’s wanting to hold on to Palestinian territories, or at least, you know, the more right-wing government in Israel to do that. And instead of pressuring them on that front, really turning to improving Israeli ties with Arab states. So, if you look at these two main objectives they came in with, both of them really relied upon building close ties with Saudi Arabia and there’s no question that they went about doing that: very close, and in fact, personal ties with Saudi Arabia, taking the very first foreign trip abroad to Saudi Arabia, quite unprecedented and building their policy from these close relations.

How did the Saudi Arabian government react to the US Intelligence Assessment that said Mohammad bin Salman was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:49] So I’m glad that you mentioned close relations because Biden often says that foreign policy to him is the natural extension of personal relationships, and he seems to have a very negative view of Mohammad bin Salman. And that seemed to be evidenced by the fact that a very early move by the Biden administration was to release the U.S. intelligence assessment alleging or finding that MBS was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. What impact did that decision have on the Biden administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia at the time, just a few weeks into his term in office in February 2021?

Kristin Diwan [00:07:34] Yeah, there was the Biden administration coming into office. There was a desire again to turn the page and to kind of reject the policies that came before them. And I think President Biden and the Democratic Party and more generally, a lot of Americans were fairly disgusted with how close the Trump administration had stood by Saudi Arabia after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. I think it was seen within this broader sense that the United States was maybe stepping away from commitments that it had to democracy and human rights and maybe going too far in the sort of realpolitik or these close ties that it was building. And so, I think there was, as they said, the Biden administration, coming in with a desire to recalibrate the relations with Saudi Arabia. And that really meant putting some distance with Mohammad bin Salman. And they did that both by releasing that report, but also by basically having this counterpart strategy like we will deal with Saudi Arabia. So, they didn’t want to actually close the door. And it’s important to note that they didn’t choose to sanction Mohammad bin Salman, which was at least an option that was put out there that some people were encouraging. But to distance it by saying that President Biden will have relations with his key counterpart, which is the king, not Mohammad bin Salman, who’s the crown prince. So that was a way to sort of distance themselves but, you know, in the end became a bit impractical, I think, in dealing with Saudi Arabia.

Why is President Joe Biden meeting with Mohammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:07] So what changed then? Why is it that after having sought to put this distance between Biden and Mohammad bin Salman, we are likely to see the two of them meet when Biden travels to Saudi Arabia. Is it simply just the realities of the oil market and the Russian invasion of Ukraine causing oil prices to sharply increase around the world? Is it like that straightforward?

Kristin Diwan [00:09:36] Well, it’s definitely responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and I think it’s important to understand that this is really shifted the Biden administration’s policies and priorities across the board. And so there is really a need then to respond to this crisis, not only in terms of oil prices that we’re sensing here in the United States, of course, and the political threat that that poses to President Biden, but also in terms of this real need to strengthen and hold tight to this transatlantic alliance with our European allies and to support them and their energy crisis is going to be even more severe, I think, than what we’re going to see in the U.S. given their reliance on Russian oil. So, I think we can’t ignore that. That’s one of the top priorities. And also, the overall need to try to isolate Russia or find more ways to pressure Russia. And, of course, you know, one of the main ways to do that is through the oil markets and Saudi Arabia is one of only two and really the main country that has some surplus supplies and can bring those on the market to replace some of those barrels that we’re hoping to remove from Russia. So that is certainly a really big consideration in all of this. But there’s also the failure or impending failure looks like a possibility, strong possibility of failure of Biden’s main policy objective of returning to this agreement with Iran that so far has failed. So, I think the Biden administration has to look to alternative policies of how to then contain Iran in the region and that means, again, turning back to our other partners and also looking to these new relations that they’ve been building, even with Israel, and to see if we can form a broader alliance that can contain, to some degree, Iran within the region.

Will the Saudi government be amenable to Biden’s oil negotiations?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:36] So do you see Mohammad bin Salman receptive to these asks by Biden both to increase oil production and also to perhaps more broadly form a regional alliance to contain Iran? I suppose the latter, it is kind of obvious that they seem inclined to do that, but the former: increasing oil production to provide a benefit to both the Biden administration and also to Europeans. Is that something that you foresee the Saudi government doing?

Kristin Diwan [00:12:12] Well, I think it’s something that we’re going to have to see how things work out over time. It certainly hasn’t been the case that they’ve been very inclined to meet our needs on the surface of it and again, there’s still that sense that they want to be hedging or at least using the other ties that they have as a way to leverage for more demands for their own interests, whether they be security interests or other things. So, I think keeping Russia as a partner on that strategic level and also within the energy markets is something that they’re at least still hoping to do for the moment, but I think that’s the kind of thing that has to be tested by improving ties. And ultimately, I also think the market itself will dictate: if prices get way too high, there’s going to be enormous pressure on Saudi Arabia. Of course, they benefit from high prices, but ultimately there are also some dangers to that, both in the hostility that it breeds internationally, the kind of problems that it causes for a lot of other countries, and the turn, of course, that everyone knows is coming, the turn away from oil. So, I think some of these realities in the oil market are also just going to be dictated by that by the market and those considerations themselves.

Why does the Saudi government want President Joe Biden to visit and meet with Mohammad bin Salman?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:27] So what do you foresee or understand to be the Saudi government’s priorities in what it seeks to achieve from having Biden visit Saudi Arabia? What are they looking to get out of this?

Kristin Diwan [00:13:40] The visit itself is really significant, and I think more than anything else, Mohammad bin Salman himself wants recognition. I mean, he wants recognition of himself and of his leadership within Saudi Arabia, recognition of the power that Saudi Arabia holds both in oil markets but internationally in the strategic arena. And, you know, and he wants Saudi Arabia to be seen as a player. So, I think just having the president come to Saudi Arabia, meeting with him and ending this policy of avoiding or shunning him is in itself probably the biggest benefit for Saudi Arabia.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:22] So the photo op is the point?

Kristin Diwan [00:14:24] Well, it is a big part of it. I think it really is. And I think beyond that, it’s not simply the photo op, but it’s the sense that there’s some movement beyond the international condemnation that has come, rightful condemnation that’s come from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And I think, you know, Biden holding out and those personal ties have been a constant reminder of that and there’s some hope that overcoming that will help them to move beyond that. And what Saudi Arabia really needs and what Saudi Arabia is most focused on beyond the regional security issues, which we can also discuss, is their own domestic transformation and the huge changes they are making in their economy, which they’re really counting on lots of foreign investors and lots of foreign visitors. Saudi Arabia today is looking to tourism to be their number two market after oil. So, they really need a lot of partners in making this transition and that means they want a lot of doors open in the United States, not just in Washington, but on Wall Street, Silicon Valley and in Hollywood as well as they move into kind of more cultural fields, so they really want that acceptance and support.

Why is Saudi Arabia trying to engage with Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:40] As you know, and as you’ve written, Saudi Arabia is looking towards tourism to be a key driver of their economy, where it currently is not and presumably that means in part an image rebrand and a rehabilitation. And you’re seeing all of these attempts by the Saudi government, by MBS, to do so through investing in sports, like the LIV golf tournament or Newcastle United but you’re also saying they’re making sort of deeper plays into Hollywood and on Wall Street?

Kristin Diwan [00:16:10] That’s right, and this is part of a real genuine change inside of Saudi Arabia. These are not things that Saudi Arabia was doing before, very much. There’s been a real change in the political orientation of the country, and they’re looking to these creative fields as well as something that they can provide to younger people, to get younger people involved and to have them creating for Saudi Arabia in a way that puts Saudi Arabia on the map in these different fields and that creates a different kind of economy. So, in order to do that, they do need rebranding. They need people to see them as partners in these different fields.

Does Mohammad bin Salman want to better Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:50] In that context and part of the Saudi government’s desire to sort of rebrand itself. Do you see that as like a factor in impacting or affecting MBS’s decision to perhaps warm relations towards Israel and join other Arab states in recognizing Israel, or at least taking some steps towards a formal recognition or normalization of relations with Israel?

Kristin Diwan [00:17:19] I think that’s right. I think they see a lot of benefits in greater coordination with Israel. There are security benefits that we’ve already seen; their neighboring state of UAE is pursuing this already in their relations with Israel. You know, the ability for them to coordinate and trying to defend against Iran, particularly in a lot of technology that Israel brings to the table, but also broader technology. You know, Saudi Arabia is looking to build this new city right there on the Red Sea up there that would be closer to Jordan’s Aqaba, coastal town of Aqaba, and a lot in Israel. And I think they see themselves as more connected in that geographic space and they think Israeli technology, investment, and eventually tourists can also perhaps connect them more in that way. That’s a number of steps away, for sure, and I don’t think the Saudi public at all is ready to accept that, but it does seem that they’re looking more in that direction towards some of these benefits that they can draw from relation to Israel.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:29] So in the coming weeks what will you be looking towards that will suggest to you whether or not this trip had a meaningful impact?

Kristin Diwan [00:18:40] Well, I think to some degree, we shouldn’t be looking for immediate results. I think the Biden administration has even tried to pitch the trip a lot more broadly, that ‘we’re there on a peace mission. We’re looking to kind of advance these Arab partners relations with Israel. We’re looking to extend and build on the truce that we’ve successfully built with Yemen.’ They’re not talking directly about oil prices, and I think they’re not expecting to see any sort of dramatic, immediate relief on that front. So, I think it’s going to be more about reestablishing the ties on a number of different fronts that will allow them to build more of a working relationship that can lead them to some of these objectives that we talked about before. I don’t think, though, that the Biden administration will completely drop the question of human rights, and I hope that they will still talk about that on the trip as well. There are some areas where they might be able to come back with some, I guess what we could call successes there, perhaps getting the release of some of these detained Saudis. But I think on the whole, we have to look to see the benefits that come in these in these broader policies. And, you know, we have seen some success or some advances on some arenas, such as in Yemen. It would be nice to see that progressing. But ultimately, I think those things are going to depend on the big movements in the region, and we’ll have to see what happens with the Iran negotiations. We’ll have to see how things are shifting with the war with Russia and see if ultimately improving our ties means these key partners in the region will be helpful in these different objectives.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:24] Well, Kristin, thank you so much for your time. This is very helpful.

Kristin Diwan [00:20:30] Great to join you. Thank you.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:32] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Kristin Diwan. That was helpful. And it should give you the context you need to understand U.S. Saudi relations as events unfold in the coming weeks and months and years ahead. All right, we’ll see next time. Thanks, bye!