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. That’s just the government of the country in turmoil – its parliament was dissolved, calling the fifth national election in three years. He will also visit the Palestinians, who remain on the margins of US foreign policy.
After two days in Israel, the President will fly to Saudi Arabia to sit next to the rulers whom he was criticized for his poor human rights record.
This is one of Biden’s most difficult and controversial trips during his presidency. It will also be his first trip as president to a strategic and volatile region. Why is Biden leaving? What does he hope to achieve?
This is what you need to know:
Oil will be on the agenda
Biden’s willingness to suspend his condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s leaders and forge ties was widely seen as a result of his need to counter skyrocketing energy prices at home. These high fuel prices – on average, a gallon of gasoline costs a little less $4.70 per gallon this week contributed to record high inflation. Worries about inflation and the economy are worries voters as they prepare for November’s midterm elections, which are predicted to be devastating for Democrats.
If Biden somehow manages to convince Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, to turn on the taps and add millions of barrels of crude oil to the market, it could help lower prices worldwide and provide an alternative to Russian oil for markets like Europe.
“For the president, this is a triumph of pragmatism over principle,” said David Schenker, a senior State Department Middle East official in the Trump administration. “He expects to be bankrupt in November due to high oil prices and a looming recession. Therefore, it is extremely important for him to be seen as an entrepreneur seeking to increase the offer in the market.”
Every administration faces a “contradiction between our interests and our values,” Schenker, now Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.– said in an interview.
Tension over human rights
Biden, U.S. diplomats, lawmakers and human rights activists have been particularly critical of Saudi Arabia over its role in the 2018 assassination of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the Saudi kingdom, ordered an operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi.
On the 2019 presidential campaign, Biden said his administration would bring those responsible for the assassination “pay the price and make them essentially the outcasts they are.” So far, Biden has only dealt with the aging King Salman, and only by phone.
Mohammed is also behind some of Saudi Arabia’s most controversial and authoritarian decisions. politics, including waging a brutal war in Yemen that resulted in the bombing and starvation of tens of thousands of civilians; the alleged kidnapping and torture of the Lebanese prime minister to force him to follow the Saudi line; imprisonment of thousands of dissidents, including members of religious minorities and women activists.
Biden’s decision to meet with Mohammed during the Saudi leg of his trip sparked protests from members of Congress from both political parties, journalistic associations, human rights activists and Saudi dissidents. A group of Democratic senators wrote to Biden warning that Mohammed was “unwavering and continuing his relentless campaign” against dissent.
Many critics gathered outside the Saudi embassy in Washington one last month and, with the blessing of the DC government, officially renamed the street where the embassy is located Jamal Khashoggi Street. The new address of the embassy is 601 Jamal Khashoggi Way NW.
Biden’s trip “sends a very bad signal to the whole world.” said one of the protesters, Omid Memarian, who works with the pro-democracy organization dedicated to the Arab world that Khashoggi founded 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 Assistant Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken at the State Department insist that human rights are always at the heart of US foreign policy and are regularly raised in meetings with other world leaders.
“This is not our entire foreign policy, it is a critical element of our foreign policy,” Blinken said in an interview last month. “In the case of Saudi Arabia… there are a lot of interests at stake, a lot of values at stake.”
Relationships are “reconfiguring” to reflect both, he says.
Blinken said the U.S. is seeking accountability for Khashoggi’s murder and other abuses by imposing visa restrictions on dozens of Saudi Arabian nationals and has introduced a ban, named after the slain journalist, that bars foreign nationals engaging in “serious extraterritorial counter-dissident activities” from on behalf of the government from entering the US. However, neither Mohammed nor any high-ranking Saudi Arabian official was punished or even acknowledged responsibility for this crime.
Senior administration officials have been laying the groundwork for weeks to defend détente with Riyadh. They credit Saudi Arabia with helping to achieve a ceasefire in Yemen and significant counterterrorism activities in the region. Mohammed has been credited with limited reforms, including allowing women to drive, in one of the world’s most repressive societies.
Other goals in the game
The Biden administration says the Saudi proposals are not just about domestic gas prices.
First, it is unlikely that the increase in oil production in Saudi Arabia will have a major impact on gas station prices in the US.
To increase production to 2 million barrels a day, as proposed by Washington, Saudi Arabia would have to violate a standing agreement with other OPEC countries that limits production increases. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s capacity for additional production and processing is limited, said Karen E. Young, founding director of the Saudi Arabian Economics and Energy Program. 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 lower world market prices would hurt Russia’s revenue from its own oil exports, which are being used to fund its war in Ukraine.
“Saudi Arabia may be the most powerful player in global oil production, but it needs to be seen in context,” said Norman Rawle, a former senior US intelligence officer who specializes in the Middle East. “For example, if the kingdom increased production overnight, where would we refine oil to produce more gasoline?”
According to Rawl and other current and former US officials, the US has numerous strategic interests that it pursues along with Saudi Arabia and other governments in the region beyond energy. These include ensuring the smooth flow of trade through the Red Sea and possible checkpoints such as the Straits of Hormuz and Mandaba; cooperation in the field of space exploration and nuclear development; facing food insecurity.
Iran will be at the center of negotiations
Iran will also be a major agenda item during both Biden stops.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia, which do not formally have diplomatic relations but privately share an open hostility towards Iran, oppose US efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, a landmark 2015 international agreement that limited Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear power. Former President Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018, prompting Iran to resume significant processing of uranium, a material that could eventually be used to build a nuclear bomb.
Israel and Saudi Arabia will use their meetings with Biden to lobby him to stop trying to revive the deal. A year of negotiations with Iran, led by other signatories, including the European Union, China and Russia, has not yet ended.
In the Saudi port of Jeddah on the Red Sea, Biden will also take part in a meeting of the so-called GCC-plus-three, an ad hoc coalition of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman) along with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Many, though not all, in the group also have hostile relations with Iran and want to see it isolated.
“Iran will be very important in connection with this visit,” said Khalid Elgindi, program director for Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Middle East Institute. He added that strengthening the 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.