to the Saudis
The president of the United States did not behave like a leader of superpower during his recent visit to the Middle East.
U.S. President Joe Biden being welcomed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Alsalam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15, 2022. Photo by Royal Court of Saudi Arabia. Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.
It was the worst fist bump. The President Joe Biden met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Jeddah Gulf Cooperation Council meeting with a slightly unconventional handshake.
Although less offensive than a traditional ceremonial kiss the president’s greeting recognized someone who was once considered a “pariah”, and had a reputation for being ruthless, violent, and treacherous, much like the worst dictators in the world. Indeed, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a liberty bottom-dweller, settled among the ten least free societies in Freedom House’s rankings.
The president kept embarrassing himself. He was aware of the tumultuous criticisms of his visit and insisted that the president expressed his dismay over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment to the crown prince. The crown prince naturally refuted everything. Biden claims that this is the truth. A top Saudi official claimed the exchange never took place.) The meeting went as planned.
Biden promised to raise the matter again. According to the administration’s official Fact Sheet, “The United States will continue to engage in a regular and direct dialogue with Saudi Arabia and other partners on these important issues, and raise our concerns with human rights at every opportunity.” Far from making the regime pay a price for its society-wide crackdown on even the slightest hint of dissent, this indicates that the president is all talk.
It would be terrible enough that only Saudi citizens were the victims of Saudi repression, such as Khashoggi. According to the Freedom Initiative, however, “the widespread and systematic campaign of arrest, intimidation, defamation, imprisonment, torture, threats, and abuse are a global experience.” Indeed, Americans are among the victims. Added TFI, “At least eighty-nine US persons or their family members were detained, disappeared, or under travel bans at some point in 2021 in Saudi Arabia.”
The issue is political. Crown Prince Slice ‘n Dice, the man who was chosen to become the next kingdom’s king is not one to like being criticized. According to the Freedom Initiative,
In all but one case involving alleged ‘corruption,’ terrorism charges in Saudi Arabian courts against US persons have been issued in relation to social media statements in support of groups or individuals internationally recognized as civil society or human rights groups or their members (most prevalent are [the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association] of which the late Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid was a co-founder) or, for tweets or communication with individuals who have criticized the government. Sometimes, criticizing government could be as easy as complaining about rising taxes and high unemployment in Saudi Arabia. The other terrorist accusations against US citizens in Saudi court include obtaining US citizenship, sending money abroad, supporting protests and communicating with dissidents who are deemed to be ‘hostile to the Saudi government’ due to criticisms of its human rights record.
Apparently Biden didn’t mention these Americans. He insisted that he’d get tough on the crown prince (known as MbS) if he acted again. The president hadn’t even gotten home before news broke that the United Arab Emirates, headed by Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, an MbS confidante, had detained U.S. citizen Asim Ghafoor. Khashoggi’s lawyer was taken into custody on an unconfirmed, in absentia conviction for money laundering. It was so convenient.
What did Biden receive for his submission? Biden was not greeted by the crown prince or king, but only the local governor. He also made a less grand entry to the GCC meeting. Following the MbS fist-bump, the greeting by enfeebled 86-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud highlighted the president’s own ongoing physical decline.
To the good, there was no sword dance, in which an awkward President Donald Trump was featured. Nor a multilateral look into the bizarre modern version of Sauron’s transparent orb, or palantir. Biden and Trump are not believed to have made any business deals. However, the president failed to achieve his goals. Saudi Arabia did not recognize Israel in the election year. Riyadh accepted Israeli flights above the Kingdom, but the president denied this as a prelude for diplomatic relations. Saudi Arabia insisted on Israel improving its treatment for Palestinians.
The official Jeddah Communique’s section on “security and defense” was quite negative. While no official defense guarantee was given, both governments stated: “President Biden strongly affirms the United States’ continued commitment to Saudi Arabia’s territorial security and defense and facilitates the kingdom’s capability to acquire the necessary capabilities to protect its people from external threats.” The KSA’s section on “security and defense” in the Jeddah Communique is quite negative. It has used its military to support the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, attack Yemen and back the insurgents fighting in Syria. Riyadh wants Americans to take care of Iran. This is nothing new. Defense Secretary Robert Gates once observed that the Saudis wanted to “fight the Iranians to the last American.”
Unintentional humor crept into the document with its declaration that “the two sides underscored the need to further deter Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of other countries, its support for terrorism through its armed proxies, and its efforts to destabilize the security and stability of the region.” One suspects that the Saudi drafters had a good laugh about this language, just as Crown Prince “Slice ‘n Dice” seemed to enjoy a reporter’s question on Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia, which invaded Yemen’s neighbor, supported, funded and assisted authoritarian regimes and terrorists in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Qatar and attempted to take over the government of Lebanon. The royals denounce foreign intervention in their affairs. (And never mind America’s record of unending intervention. )
Support was proposed for regional integration in air defense. This is a valuable objective but should not be used to increase U.S. military involvements in the region. Riyadh plans to fulfill every security promise and turn U.S. troops into guards for unpopular royals.
In Yemen, there was more talk that wasn’t connected to reality. According to the Jeddah Communique, MbS and his associates were innocently involved in neighboring countries’ internal affairs. The U.S.S.A. and KSA stated that they supported the UN-brokered Yemeni truce. They also stressed the need to extend the truce, and make progress towards transforming the truce into an effective peace deal. The President expressed appreciation to King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for their efforts in renewing and achieving the truce. Both sides stressed their commitment to ending the war in Yemen and called for the international community’s support.
The fact sheet actually was more damaging.
The fact sheet was worse. It stated that the two governments had “committed to making steps to do everything possible to extend or strengthen UN-mediated peace.” Riyadh was also mentioned in praise for providing aid to Yemen.
This warranted another royal smile. MbS launched an unnecessary war in order to restore a puppet government. The Saudis maintained a blockade and bombed civilians at all occasions, including weddings and funerals. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis were killed and continue to be killed.
Negotiating peace will take time and effort. All parties must do their best to maintain the truce. The killing prince can simply say the words to end the war. It is enough for the kingdom to stop killing Yemenis and attacking their neighbor. Although the insurgents are also authoritarian and brutal, they did not want to attack Saudi Arabia after the KSA made their country a charnel home. The foolishness of his actions should be stopped by MbS.
Last but not least politically, the Saudis will likely pump more oil. Some. Eventually. Possibly. The president insisted, “I’m doing all I can to increase the supply for the United States of America, which I expect to happen. We share this urgency with the Saudis and, based upon our conversations today, I believe we’ll see additional steps in coming weeks .
This is absurd. Riyadh isn’t looking to oversupply the market, preferring to sell at higher prices than lower. Moreover, its ability to put more oil into the market is limited, and it already had planned to start increasing sales in July and August as part of the latest OPEC agreement. Any increase in oil prices would need to be approved by OPEC. This meeting will take place only until August.
The Saudis denied that the president made these claims. Adel al-Jubeir, state minister for foreign affairs, said that “oil is not a political weapon, oil is not a tank.” Rather, supply will be based on demand: “If you say did we promise more oil it means that we see a shortage in oil.” After the president left, MbS ostentatiously criticized U.S. energy policies, especially regarding climate change.
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Finally, any increase in supply is unlikely to have a significant impact on the prices. This makes it difficult for American drivers to notice or identify an increase. Trump’s plea for more supply sounds like the desperate plea of a man who killed his parents but pleaded for forgiveness as an orphan. Trump’s administration tried to remove Iranian and Venezuelan oil off the markets. Biden’s administration has committed itself to decreasing U.S. oil production, and reducing Russian oil sales. It is not Saudi Arabia’s policy that is the problem.
The administration might lift the U.S. sanction on Venezuela that have been unsuccessful in overthrowing its ruling government. To revive the nuclear agreement, President Obama could also make an arrangement with Iran. Biden might reverse his attack on domestic production. The administration should also reflect upon the fact that sanctioning Russia while going to Riyadh is encouraging a more restrictive regime at home that has waged a much longer war overseas. On the Freedom House Index, Saudi Arabia is also lower than Iran. This is a very humane tradeoff by the administration.
Washington’s foreign policy establishment spent decades bowing to Riyadh, claiming that Riyadh is an important ally. It wasn’t the case back then. Today, it isn’t. It is absurd for America’s president, who should be the servant seeking royal favours and not the submissive one. The president should play the role if he wants to lead a superpower.