In pursuit of oil and Mideast security, Biden to meet with Saudis he once regarded as pariahs

Nothing about President Biden’s visit to the Middle East this week will be easy.

The president will first arrive in Israel, a key US ally in the region. Aside from that, the country’s government is in turmoil – its parliament has been dissolved, calling for the fifth national election in three years. He will also visit Palestinians who remain on the fringes of US foreign policy.

After two days in Israel, the president will fly to Saudi Arabia to sit next to rulers he has criticized for their poor human rights records.

It’s among Biden’s most complex and controversial journeys during his presidency. It will also be his first term as president in the strategic and volatile region. Why is Biden leaving? What is he hoping to achieve?

Here’s what you need to know:

Oil will be high on the agenda

Biden’s willingness to suspend his condemnation of Saudi leaders and mend ties has been widely seen as a result of his need to confront soaring energy prices at home. These high fuel prices — a gallon of gasoline averaged just under $4.70 a gallon this week — have contributed to record-high inflation. Concerns about inflation and the economy are at the forefront of voters ahead of November’s midterm elections, which are forecast to be devastating for Democrats.

If Biden can somehow persuade Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, to open the taps and put millions of barrels of crude oil on the market, it could help lower prices around the world and provide alternatives to Russian oil for markets like Europe.

“It’s the triumph of pragmatism over principle for the president,” said David Schenker, the Trump administration’s top State Department official for the Middle East. “He expects to be berated in November with high oil prices and a looming recession. It is therefore imperative that he strives to bring more supply to the market.”

Every government faces “a tension between balancing our interests and our values,” said Schenker, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an interview.

tensions over human rights

Biden, US diplomats, lawmakers and human rights defenders have placed particular censorship on Saudi Arabia for its role in the 2018 assassination of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

US intelligence has concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi kingdom’s de-factor ruler, ordered an operation “to capture or kill Khashoggi”.

At a campaign event in 2019, Biden said his administration will make those responsible for the killing “pay the price and actually make them the pariahs that they are.” So far, Biden has only engaged with the aging King Salman, and only by phone.

Mohammed is also behind some of Saudi Arabia’s most controversial and autocratic rulers Politics, including pursuing a brutal war in Yemen that has resulted in bombings and the starvation of tens of thousands of civilians; alleged kidnapping and torture of the Prime Minister of Lebanon to bring him to the Saudi line; the imprisonment of thousands of dissidents, including religious minorities and activists.

Mohammed bin Salman, left, and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Mohammed bin Salman, left, and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

(Associated Press/Tribune News Service)

Biden’s decision to meet with Mohammed during the Saudi leg of his trip has drawn protests from congressmen from both political parties, journalists’ associations, human rights activists and Saudi dissidents. A group of Democratic senators wrote to Biden, warning that Mohammed was “unchastised and continuing his ruthless campaign” against dissenters.

Many of the critics rallied in a day last month in front of the Saudi embassy in Washington and, with the blessing of the District of Columbia government, officially renamed the street where the embassy is located Jamal Khashoggi Way. The new embassy address is 601 Jamal Khashoggi Way NW.

Biden trip ‘sends a very bad signal around the world’ said one of the protesters, Omid Memarian, who works with a pro-democracy organization focused on the Arab world that Khashoggi founded a few months before his death. And when it comes to oil, Memarian said, “the US government gets a temporary solution and pays for it with its moral authority.”

The Biden White House and the State Department under Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken insist that human rights are always at the heart of US foreign policy and are routinely raised in meetings with other world leaders.

“It’s not the whole of our foreign policy, it’s a crucial element of our foreign policy,” Blinken said in an interview last month. “In the case of Saudi Arabia … there are a multitude of interests at stake, we have a multitude of values ​​at stake.”

The relationship will be “recalibrated,” he said, to reflect both.

Blinken said the US has sought accountability for Khashoggi’s murder and other abuses by imposing visa restrictions on dozens of Saudis and enacting a ban – named after the slain journalist – that bans foreigners engaging in “serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities”. Banned from entering the United States on behalf of a government. Neither Mohammed nor a senior Saudi official were punished or even acknowledged as responsible for the crime.

Senior government officials have spent weeks laying the groundwork in defense of detente with Riyadh. They credit Saudi Arabia with helping broker a ceasefire in Yemen and significant counter-terrorism activities in the region. Muhammad has been credited with limited reforms, including allowing women to drive in one of the world’s most repressive societies.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken answers questions during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in September.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken answers questions during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in September.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Other goals in the game

The Biden administration says the offers to Saudi Arabia are about more than domestic gas prices.

For one thing, increased oil production from Saudi Arabia is unlikely to have a major impact on pump prices in the United States.

To ramp up to the additional 2 million barrels a day, as Washington has proposed, Saudi Arabia would have to breach an existing deal with other OPEC nations that limits production increases. Also, Saudi capacity for additional production and processing is limited, said Karen E. Young, founding director of the Economics and Energy Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“Will 2 million barrels a day change the price for Americans? No,” she said in an interview. “It would help the market in general, but not in the US”

One potential benefit from the US perspective is that lowering world prices would cut Russia’s revenues from its own oil exports, money used to fund its war in Ukraine.

“Saudi Arabia may be the most influential player in global oil production, but that needs to be put into context,” said Norman Roule, a former senior US intelligence officer specializing in the Middle East. “For example, if the kingdom increased production overnight, where would we refine the oil to produce more gasoline?”

The US has numerous strategic interests with Saudi Arabia and other governments in the region that go beyond energy, Roule and other current and former US officials said. This includes ensuring the unhindered flow of trade through the Red Sea and potential checkpoints such as the Straits of Hormuz and Mandab; cooperation in space exploration and nuclear development; address food insecurity.

Iran will be at the center of the talks

Iran will also be a key agenda item on both Biden stops.

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia, which do not officially have diplomatic ties but privately share open hostility towards Iran, oppose US efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, a landmark 2015 international deal that compromises Tehran’s ability to limited production of nuclear energy. Former President Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, prompting Iran to resume significant processing of uranium, the material that could eventually be used to build a nuclear bomb.

Israel and Saudi Arabia will use their meetings with Biden to persuade him to abandon efforts to revive the deal. A year-long talks with Iran, held by other signatories to the deal, including the European Union, China and Russia, have so far not been completed.

In the Saudi Red Sea port city of Jeddah, Biden will also attend a meeting of the so-called GCC plus three, an ad hoc coalition made up of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman). with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Many – though not all – in the group also have hostile ties to Iran and want it isolated.

“Iran will play a major role in this visit,” said Khalid Elgindy, program director for Israel-Palestinian affairs at the Middle East Institute. Strengthening a united front against Iran also allows Biden to work towards better integrating Israel into the region’s security architecture, where until recently most countries did not recognize Israel’s existence, he added. In pursuit of oil and Mideast security, Biden to meet with Saudis he once regarded as pariahs

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