Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

Biden Needs to Make Up With Saudi Arabia, or China Will Gain

| Mar. 31, 2022

Beijing is working hard to come between the U.S. and its longtime ally in a vital region of the world

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and reflection, begins this weekend. Going without food or water from dawn to dusk humbles and refocuses believers on harmony with Allah and mankind. This might be a propitious moment for President Biden to visit the kingdom and seek forgiveness for a growing list of Saudi grievances that have badly damaged relations between Washington and Riyadh. Notably, the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is refusing to pump more oil to help Mr. Biden in his quest to lower energy prices. 

Saudi resentment has been mounting for a decade. President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was interpreted here as a signal that the U.S. had higher priorities than protecting the Middle East and global oil supplies. But the serious damage began only when President Biden went on the offensive, labeling Saudi Arabia a “pariah state,” removing Patriot missiles that shield Saudi oil installations from attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and groveling to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran, an Al Saud nemesis. 

In the first year of his administration, President Biden refused even to speak with Crown Prince Mohammed. And in February 2021 Mr. Biden released the Central Intelligence Agency’s conclusion that the crown prince had ordered the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. When Russian oil abruptly disappeared from world markets in March, the president turned to Riyadh, but Crown Prince Mohammed refused his call.

In the 40 years I have been visiting this country, never has anger at the U.S. been so visceral or so widespread. “The relationship is dead,” one senior Saudi businessman declared. “Obama dug the grave, and Biden put the lid on the casket.” 

Foreign Ministry officials are less apocalyptic but no less disdainful: “You criticize us for producing oil and call it dirty to please climate advocates and yet when you’re in trouble you turn to us and say, ‘Pump more.’ ” Officials here insist the kingdom won’t increase production without the agreement of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Plus, which includes Russia. “Right now there is no rational commercial or financial argument for increasing production,” an economic official says, “only a political one.”

Both countries need to put aside wounded pride and repair their relationship, which truly underpins global economic security. When the Kingdom embargoed oil to the U.S. in 1973, Riyadh privately assured Washington that oil for all American military installations world-wide would continue to flow without disruption. Yet now, as Houthi attacks regularly target Saudi oil installations, the Biden administration shows little concern for Saudi security. While Mr. Biden last month agreed to resume providing Patriot missiles to the kingdom, he hasn’t yet returned the Houthis to the U.S. terrorist list. Worse, according to reports from the talks in Vienna, he is considering removing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard from the State Department’s foreign terror organization list if it pledges not to target Americans. 

Saudi pique is dangerous. The kingdom’s relations with China are strong and getting stronger. Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in 2016. China purchases 1.8 million barrels of oil a day from the kingdom and is now Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner. The Chinese welcomed Crown Prince Mohammed to Beijing in 2019 and, unlike President Biden, have shown great deference to the young prince. At March’s Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Islamabad, the Chinese foreign minister declared that China and Saudi Arabia are “good friends and good brothers . . . who support each other’s core issues.”

But Beijing can’t protect Saudi oil fields or the sea lanes that allow its oil to reach world markets. For now, only the U.S. can do that. So it’s time for Riyadh and Washington to put their heads together and cooperate on a new security strategy.

“If the president of the U.S. wants to visit, he is welcome. We aren’t encouraging or discouraging it,” a Foreign Ministry official said when asked about rumors of a possible Biden visit. He refuses to discuss plans if there are any.

But it seems clear from talking with various Saudi officials that if Mr. Biden wants to thaw the cold relationship he needs to visit Riyadh. From the White House’s point of view, this will be hard for him to do without losing face. Mr. Biden’s reception would inevitably be compared with that of President Trump, whose first foreign visit here received a spectacular royal embrace. And the photo of Mr. Biden shaking hands with Crown Prince Mohammed would be visible proof of eating humble pie.

Ramadan offers some cover. Saudi officials are willing to host world leaders during the holy month, but an official visit with honor guard and all the trappings isn’t possible during fasting. “Only a working visit is possible during Ramadan,” explains one Saudi official, who recalls that President Obama’s first trip to the kingdom was a brief working visit in which he was transported directly from the airport to King Abdullah’s farm for a private meeting. Mr. Biden could come in the posture of working to resolve large strategic issues, not as a president seeking a photo opportunity and a royal welcome. This would avoid direct comparisons with the Trump visit or that of Mr. Xi, who has been promised a Trumpian welcome here for his first post-pandemic trip outside China. Mr. Xi is expected after Ramadan, perhaps as early as May.

The Saudis want more than a photo-op. They want a serious strategic discussion on a range of issues, but especially on how the U.S. intends to protect its Gulf state allies and Israel from Iran. The Biden administration’s determination to sign a new nuclear deal with Tehran is another big source of Saudi doubt about the U.S. role and reliability in the region. “We are used to the U.S. having a clear sense of direction, but this administration has been erratic,” an official says. “It has struggled with strategic decisions.” Iran provides the Biden administration a legitimate rationale for a “working visit” to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has been a key U.S. ally for nearly 80 years. If Mr. Biden wants to mend the relationship, doing so sooner rather than later is wise. His pride may take a short-term hit, but the price to U.S. interests of simply standing aloof as Saudi Arabia moves ever deeper into China’s orbit is far higher.

Ms. House, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, is author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future.”

  – Via the original publication source.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: House, Karen.“Biden Needs to Make Up With Saudi Arabia, or China Will Gain.” The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2022.