OBiden spoke out strongly against Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail. He said the kingdom should be treated as a “pariah” after the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington PostJamal Khashoggi, columnist. One of his first acts as President was to declassify the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s assessment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved Khashoggi’s killing.
It was that time. As Biden travels through the Middle East for the first time as President, his campaign’s emphasis on human rights has given way to realpolitik. While the United States leads the worldwide effort to penalize Moscow for its war crimes in Ukraine, the White House concluded that it needs Saudi Arabia as its ally. This is what the White House intends to do with Russia. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine gave this trip more of a great-power-competition focus,” says Aaron David Miller, a former senior advisor for Middle East policy at the State Department.
Biden must swallow his pride when he smiles in the Middle East. When the 46th president visits Jeddah after his swing through Israel and the West Bank, he’ll be attending a meeting of Gulf states where he is expected to have face-to-face meetings with bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. That moment will highlight Biden’s willingness to put U.S. strategic interests ahead of the Kingdom’s noxious human rights record.
The U.S. continues to see countries around the world hedge their bets, even as Russian sanctions are beginning to impact the Russian economy. Israel for instance, maintains open relations with Russia to manage security threats to Syria. It also wants to continue to support long-standing relationships between Israelis, Russian Jews, and Israelis. Saudi Arabia sees the relationship it has with Russia, which is oil-rich, as a way to influence global energy markets. This, in turn, benefits its economy.
Similar cross-cutting concerns are taking place all over the globe. “Of the 10 most populated countries in the world, only one has bought on to a comprehensive package against Russia—and that’s us,” Miller says. That’s why Biden’s trip is part of a broader effort by the U.S. to shore up what wonks inside the West Wing call “middle powers,” those countries who could be lured to Russia’s side as the conflict in Ukraine reheats the competition between Moscow and Washington. “It is precisely because the world is becoming more geopolitically competitive” that the U.S needs to “remain intensively engaged in the Middle East,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters before Biden left on his trip. One of Biden’s objectives for his time in the region, Sullivan said, is to ensure that “no foreign power can dominate or gain strategic advantage over the United States.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Riyadh in Saudi Arabia on 14 October 2019.
Alexey Nikolsky—Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images
It holds a significant advantage in many parts of the Mideast. The Saudi-Russia connection is nowhere near as deep as Riyadh’s with the United States, which dates to the decades after the House of Saud seized power on the peninsula in the early 20th century. Moscow’s relationship with Riyadh was tense following the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and the Saudi and U.S. effort to back mujahideen fighters resisting the Russian occupation. Diplomatic relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia weren’t re-established until 1992.
But the U.S. can’t take Saudi Arabia for granted. Russia and Saudi Arabia became closer in 2016 when Saudi leaders persuaded Russia to become a member of the expanded Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC Plus. This partnership was a convenience arrangement, partly motivated by Saudi anger at the U.S.’s development of fracking technology and shale extracting technologies.
Although the Saudi-led oil producer group agreed to raise oil sales in June, production has not met its targets. It will take several months for any increase in oil output from the region to impact high U.S. gasoline prices. This is a significant political risk for Biden as he heads into the midterm elections.
Over time, the Saudis apparently have come to see the U.S. as a “less reliable partner,” and that’s created an opening for Russia, says Eugene Rumer, the director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council. Russia and Saudi Arabia “share a common aversion to the U.S. bringing up human rights as a major policy issue,” Rumer says. Russian President Vladimir Putin “is only happy to jump in where the United States seems to be leaving some vacuum,” Rumer says. Putin doesn’t have much to offer the Saudis in the long term. “But for Putin, there’s a sense of playing on the big stage again,” Rumer says.
For more than two decades, the U.S. has worked to integrate Russia into the global economy on the idea that Russia’s interests would start to align more with American and European economic interests. But Putin’s shown with his repeated invasions of Ukraine that he’s unwilling to moderate his ambitions. And Russia’s ties to the world economy have now become one of its strategic assets, as the U.S. and Europe experience how difficult it is to isolate Russia’s $1.7 trillion economy without damaging the European and American economies.
Saudi Arabia and the U.S. also both view Iran as a threat, a concern that may also argue against placing human rights at the top of the list of Washington’s priorities with Riyadh. “When you are leading the most powerful and significant country in the world, sometimes you have to meet with people and go to countries where they are a seriously problematic partner,” says Bradley Bowman, a former Army officer and an expert on U.S. military strategy with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Bowman believes it would be “negligent” for Biden not to go to Saudi Arabia.
U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden arrived at Riyadh Airbase, Riyadh to express his sympathy for the passing of late Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud on October 27, 2011.
The U.S. also has an eye on China’s increasingly global ambitions. “We know that Russia never left the Middle East and we know that China’s active there, both diplomatically and economically,” Bowman says. China’s first overseas military base was established in Djibouti near a U.S. military base in that country.
If the U.S. is going to compete in this “great power competition” in the Middle East, Bowman says, it has to tend to its relationship with countries there. “That doesn’t mean we need to have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of troops there necessarily,” Bowman says. But if the U.S. doesn’t keep up some of its military relationships there, “Chinese and Russians will be among the most happily waiting as we depart the Middle East,” Bowman says.
“President Biden would love to see OPEC in general and Saudi Arabia in particular producing more oil to try to get gas prices down, but if you’re constantly criticizing Riyadh and you’re constantly talking about how you want to leave the Middle East and pivot elsewhere,” Bowman says, “then when you come calling hat in hand with requests about pumping more oil or doing this or doing that, anyone who tries to maintain personal relationships understands that may be not be well received.”
Putin will soon be in the area next week, after Biden’s departure. Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to meet with leaders from Turkey and Iran in Tehran. Biden’s Administration worries that Iran may be selling Russian drones for the use in Ukraine.
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