Three years after Joe Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state over the assassination of a prominent dissident, the US president met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a fist bump on Friday as his administration attempts to reset relations in order to stabilise global oil markets.
Whereas Donald Trump was personally welcomed to the conservative Gulf kingdom on his first presidential visit by King Salman, Biden was met on the tarmac on Friday evening by the governor of Mecca and the Saudi ambassador to the US in a subdued ceremony before travelling to the city’s al-Salam palace, where he held talks with the 86-year-old king and his powerful heir, Prince Mohammed, before a working meeting.
Oil, human rights, Iran, Israel and the war in Yemen are all on the agenda for what is likely to be a thorny 24-hour trip. Saudi Arabia has been a key strategic ally for the US for decades, both selling oil and buying weaponry, but when he was running for president, Biden vowed to turn the kingdom into a “global pariah” over the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
After he took office in early 2021, Biden’s administration released US intelligence findings that concluded Prince Mohammed approved the operation targeting Khashoggi, a member of the Saudi elite who broke ranks and began writing articles for the Washington Post critical of the crown prince’s sweeping domestic reforms.
Biden has since made a point of only speaking directly with the Saudi king, rather than the crown prince, but has been forced to re-evaluate the US’s relationship with the world’s largest oil producer in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which contributed to a 14-year high of $139.13 a barrel of Brent crude earlier this year.
Washington is eager for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which hold the bulk of spare capacity within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), to pump more oil to help bring down petrol costs. The US’s worst inflation crisis in four decades looms over the US midterm elections in November.
The choreography of Biden’s visit is being closely watched for evidence of a genuine detente with Prince Mohammed. Prior to Biden’s trip, the White House said he would be opting for fist bumps rather than handshakes and avoiding other physical contact, which has widely been interpreted as a way to avoid being photographed shaking the crown prince’s hand.
On Saturday, Biden will attend a summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, joined by representatives from Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, and hold bilateral meetings with the leaders of the UAE, Iraq and Egypt before returning to Washington.
But despite the Biden team’s efforts, US officials have briefed that no major announcements will be made on increasing global oil supply during the trip.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told journalists aboard Air Force One shortly before landing in Jeddah: “I don’t think you should expect a particular announcement here bilaterally because we believe any further action taken to ensure that there is sufficient energy to protect the health of the global economy will be done in the context of Opec+.” A summit of the oil producing nations is due to be held on 3 August.
The president’s four-day Middle East tour, during which he also stopped in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, is also calibrated to show that the US is still committed to the security of its allies in the region in the face of a growing military threat from Iran amid the competing influence of Russia and China.
Israel has grown closer to Arab countries in recent years over their shared enemy in Tehran, with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan agreeing to normalise relations with the majority Jewish state despite the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Muslim world’s geopolitical linchpin, has so far held out on formalising relations with Israel until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved. Early on Friday, however, before Biden’s visit, the kingdom announced it was opening its airspace to “all air carriers”, signalling an end to a longstanding ban on Israeli flights over its territory.
Another proposed agreement is believed to codify Israeli approval of a longstanding plan to transfer Egypt’s control of two strategic Red Sea islands back to Riyadh.
During his time in Jeddah, Biden is expected to lobby for fully integrating Israel into an emerging regional defence alliance against Iran’s increasing drone and missile capabilities.
July 15, 2022 at 11:24PM Bethan McKernan in Jerusalem