When Joe Biden was a presidential candidate, he made no bones about his stance on the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Shortly after announcing his candidacy, Biden declared he was going to “cancel the blank check” the Trump administration had given Saudi Arabia during its war in Yemen. Some three months later, Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations that “America’s priorities in the Middle East should be set in Washington, not Riyadh.”
The rhetoric became even more heated as the campaign wore on, with Biden promising to make Saudi Arabia an international “pariah” for butchering Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was captured by a team of Saudi agents on the orders of Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and brutally killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and then dismembered.
As morally distasteful as it seems for Biden to do business with MBS, the job of the president is to hold his nose when necessary to pursue the interests of the United States.
Once elected, Biden wasted no time trying to match his words with action. Less than three weeks after his inauguration, he suspended U.S. offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and appointed a veteran diplomat to help steer the absolute monarchy toward a peace agreement with Yemen. Last February, the Biden administration declassified an intelligence community report that implicated the powerful crown prince in Khashoggi’s murder, imposed sanctions on high-ranking Saudi intelligence officials for their involvement in the plot, and restricted visas to 76 Saudis deemed responsible for the targeting of dissidents overseas.
So it’s no surprise that many are disappointed by Biden’s reversal in recent months, as he’s reportedly made unsuccessful bids for Saudi help to relieve high oil prices capped by his decision to visit the deeply conservative kingdom Friday. Biden put on a brave face upon landing, greeting the crown prince at the royal palace with a fist bump.
Lawmakers normally supportive of the Biden White House expressed displeasure with the notion of sitting down with MBS, a man who reeks of authoritarianism. Biden himself recognized the controversy the trip has caused, going so far as to write an op-ed in The Washington Post explaining why it was in the U.S. interest to begin repairing U.S.-Saudi ties.
Indeed, as morally distasteful as it seems for Biden to do business with MBS, the job of the president is to hold his nose when necessary to pursue the interests of the United States. In many cases — this one certainly included — that requires the president to engage with individuals who are unsavory and autocratic, two descriptions that no doubt apply to the Saudi crown prince.
The world looks a lot different from the Oval Office than it does on the campaign trail. Candidates have the luxury of basking in idealism, presenting grand plans and spouting bold rhetoric. But presidents have to deal with real-world situations, in which difficult choices are made and trade-offs are often unavoidable. Biden has rightly come to the conclusion that a strategy of isolating MBS isn’t feasible, particularly at a time when high energy prices remain a top concern for Americans back home.
That means the visit was worthwhile despite the political awkwardness for Biden and his aides — who were constantly asked to explain how a presidential-level trip to an autocratic kingdom squared with the president’s intentions to elevate human rights in U.S. foreign policy — and the personal awkwardness it entailed.
Biden had gone to considerable lengths to stay away from the crown prince during his first year in office, preferring to speak with the ailing 86-year-old King Salman. The lack of communication likely added to the disdain both men seem to feel for each other. When asked earlier this year whether he thought Biden misunderstood him, MBS curtly replied, “I do not care.” On Friday, the 79-year-old president faced a 36-year-old prince of a different generation, temperament, world view and life experience.
But MBS, as flawed as he is, is almost certainly going to rule Saudi Arabia for decades given his young age and Machiavellian ability to consolidate power. Despite Biden’s “pariah” comment, it was highly unlikely the president was ever going to treat Saudi Arabia like a Middle East version of North Korea. This is a country, after all, that is the world’s largest crude oil exporter and the powerhouse of the OPEC petroleum cartel, which controls nearly 40 percent of the globe’s oil supply.
Energy isn’t the only asset that makes it financially important, however. Saudi Arabia already has a $833 billion gross domestic product and is seeking to transition its economy into a new commercial center in the region. The kingdom has the potential to be a burgeoning market for U.S. companies on the prowl for new investments.
It holds significance for the U.S. on the security front, as well. Due in part to attacks in the kingdom, the Saudis are treating terrorism as a serious problem (although their efforts to crack down on fundraising for extremist causes leaves much to be desired). And Saudi Arabia increasingly cooperates with Israel, a key U.S. partner in the Middle East, slowly but surely normalizing the relationship. Not to mention that about 70,000 Americans live or work in Saudi Arabia at any given time.
Despite Biden’s “pariah” comment, it was highly unlikely the president was ever going to treat Saudi Arabia like a Middle East version of North Korea.
Against this backdrop, the current geopolitical moment also requires cooperation. The war in Ukraine and the U.S. sanctions against Russian crude oil, mean energy costs are spiking. U.S. consumers are paying an average of $4.57 a gallon at the pump, while inflation is at its highest rate in four decades.
Most producers are unable to pump more into the market. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the exception is Saudi Arabia, which can ramp up production by an additional million and a half barrels per day (although there are questions about that assessment).
Unfortunately for Biden, the Saudis won’t stabilize the oil market out of the goodness of their hearts. It doesn’t take a genius to explain why Saudi officials rebuffed Washington’s request for a production hike earlier this year; the higher the price is, the higher Saudi Arabia’s profit margins. Aramco, the Saudi state oil producer, reported a profit increase of over 80 percent during the first quarter of the year.
Given his freeze-out of MBS wasn’t paying off, Biden was right to ignore the criticism and visit the kingdom to try to work out an increase in oil production (whether he leaves the region with a deal in hand is another question entirely). But that doesn’t mean the U.S.-Saudi “reset“ Biden is calling for should be a reinstallation of former President Donald Trump’s policies.
Trump often acted like the kingdom’s lawyer and protective guardian in the international community, approving tens of billions of dollars in arms sales to Riyadh, taking its side in a yearslong dispute with neighboring Qatar and turning a blind eye to Khashoggi’s assassination. This follows a problematic U.S. pattern of failing to distinguish between its own interests and Saudi Arabia’s, leading to poor judgment calls like supporting Riyadh’s disastrous war in Yemen
The U.S. can have a better relationship with the Saudis without giving them 100% of what they ask for. Even allies, which the Saudis aren’t, can have different interests. The “recalibration” Biden seeks doesn’t require sycophancy and giving away the store. Instead, the U.S. should be willing to extend a hand to work on common interests and know when to reel it back in when those interests aren’t shared.
This is best done via visits like Friday’s, so that clear communication can prevent misplaced expectations, maximize opportunities for collaboration and minimize personality clashes. If Biden was idealistic as a candidate, he is beginning to show his pragmatic streak as commander in chief. He deserves credit for making the transformation. One hopes he will be as ruthlessly pragmatic during his interactions with the Saudi royal family going forward.