President Joe Biden has been reluctantly drawn into closer ties with Saudi Arabia’s king-in-waiting, forced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to rethink a standoffish approach as the US struggles to curb soaring oil prices.
The softening US attitude, described by a dozen people familiar with the debate, follows months of efforts by some senior administration officials to convince a wary president that ignoring the de facto Saudi leader was hampering US foreign policy goals. The need to isolate Moscow gave new impetus to that push. One official described Russia’s aggression as a paradigm-shifting event that changes the way the US looked at Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is the Middle East’s economic powerhouse and for years has been a political heavyweight in the region’s affairs and a dominant force in OPEC+ — a powerful alliance between the oil-exporters’ cartel and Russia. It’s also one of the biggest buyers of American weapons.
The shift is in part an admission that Biden backed himself into a corner during his presidential campaign by calling Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” a reflection of his revulsion over the 2018 murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi and a desire to retreat from his predecessor’s cozier relations. Donald Trump deployed his son-in-law Jared Kushner to work directly with MBS — as the prince is usually called — often to the exclusion of his own top diplomat.
Conversations with people in Riyadh and Washington paint a picture of an administration that recognizes it must maintain a decades-old partnership that’s guaranteed US clout in the world’s top energy-exporting region and yet also wants to punish Prince Mohammed, 36, over his human rights record.
Three people familiar with the matter said the two sides were trying to arrange a call between Biden and the crown prince for the first time, but strains were now so deep that it would take time.
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said Monday it “is categorically false” that the White House made a formal request for a call with the crown prince, and denied that the Saudis have rebuffed the president.
NSC spokeswoman Emily Horne added: “The president spoke with King Salman on February 9th. In that call, they set forth an affirmative bilateral agenda from climate, to security, to energy cooperation. Since that important call, our teams have been engaged at every level. There have been no discussions of subsequent calls at the president’s level given this regular and ongoing engagement.”
A US official who asked not to be identified said the Saudis agree with the protocol of the president speaking with his counterpart, the king. The official also said Biden has been open to conversations with Prince Mohammed, noting that if the crown prince had come to Rome in October during the G-20 gathering, Biden would have met with him.
A Serious Challenge
Biden set himself up for a serious challenge after taking office in January 2021 by promising to reorient his foreign policy away from the Middle East and make human rights a greater priority. At the time, his spokeswoman said his counterpart was King Salman and phrased the shift as a “recalibration” in ties.
Yet the US relies on Saudi Arabia for 7% of its oil imports, a number that won’t budge much unless it spurs more domestic output –- something progressives in Biden’s party would resist. Saudi Arabia is also an important regional counterbalance to Iran, whose armed proxies launch near-daily attacks on US allies across the Middle East. Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis struck six sites in the kingdom as recently as Sunday, including some operated by state oil giant Aramco.
Biden’s cold shoulder has been particularly poorly received as he seeks to revive the 2015 nuclear accord that would hand the Islamic Republic an oil windfall without addressing such security concerns.
Saudi Arabia said in a statement Monday it refused to be held responsible for any shortage of oil on global markets as long as its energy facilities face attack from Iranian-backed Houthis, urging the international community to do more to secure supplies.
Now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine adds further complication. It has contributed to soaring gasoline prices, which the Biden administration is eager to bring down before voters head into midterm elections that could hand control of Congress to the Republicans.
But rebuilding ties won’t be easy. Biden’s decision to bypass Prince Mohammed and deal only with his aging father is seen in Riyadh as a personal insult — one that won’t be forgiven overnight.
The country’s leaders also resent the attention the US has lavished on their tiny neighbor Qatar, and have griped that the US only calls when it needs a favor.
This time, Saudi Arabia –- along with Israel and the United Arab Emirates — want the US to address longer-term concerns over Iran’s support for armed groups and offer lasting security guarantees before they rally behind Biden’s effort to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin and relieve energy markets.
In a sign the message is filtering through, the US condemned the latest attacks, with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan pledging the US would “fully support our partners in the defense of their territory.”
The US had transferred a significant number of Patriot anti-missiles interceptors to Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, acting on urgent requests amid tensions in the relationship, according to an official familiar.
One US official said they’re having ongoing discussions on oil and the administration believes they’re heading to good place on price pressure cooperation.
In a recent interview with the Atlantic, when asked if Biden misunderstands him, the crown prince responded “simply, I do not care,” adding that it was “up to him to think about the interests of America.” Of the idea of alienating Saudi Arabia, he replied, “go for it.”
Administration officials are debating whether those remarks were just posturing or a genuine shift in outlook by Saudi Arabia, which has built deeper ties with Russia and China as the US has sought to shift focus from the region. Even as those ties grow, most officials argue that the Saudis recognize Beijing is no substitute for Washington.
One person familiar with the administration’s stance, who asked not to be named, described Prince Mohammed as pouting, a characterization indicative of US attitude to a key ally at a time of international crisis.
“It’s not going well and it’s not likely to go well,” Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “There’s a strong tendency in American foreign policy to expect everybody else to drop what they’re doing, and immediately turn their attention to helping us address whatever we’re worried about.”
The Saudi Foreign Ministry and government communications center didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the kingdom’s relationship with the US or potential for a call with Biden.
People familiar with the matter said the biggest holdouts to softening the US approach have been the president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Biden, according to people familiar, is concerned about blowback in Washington, including from congressional Democrats who’ve lambasted him as too soft, and from the Washington Post, the influential newspaper that published Khashoggi’s columns.
Blinken frets that MBS is still doing things that warrant condemnation. The kingdom recently executed 81 people and civilian casualties have mounted in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been bombing the Houthis since they dislodged the internationally-recognized government in 2015.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, describing in an interview his call with Blinken, said that the US diplomat “acknowledged the limitations that the government faces of their countervailing values and interests.”
Just as Biden may have run too hard away from the Saudis early in his tenure, now some in Washington worry he may overcompensate in the rush to align partners against Putin.
“It’s all fine and good to argue that we need to work with bad actors against even worse actors,” said Matt Duss, senior foreign policy adviser to Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders. “But we should remember that this was the same logic that led the US to treat Vladimir Putin as a partner in the War on Terror.”