It’s on again — and it’s complicated.
We are back playing suitor and wooing Saudi Arabia. Apparently, the forgiveness phase of the long, problematic relationship is budding anew.
Not that the United States is publicizing the attempted reset. The announcement by the White House trickled out in as low-key and elliptical a manner as possible, in the context of an overall visit to the Mideast by President Biden next month. First, Mr. Biden will meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to resuscitate a two-state peace framework. His visit to Israel will occur just weeks after the coalition government’s collapse, forcing the nation’s fifth election in three years sometime this the fall. Then he will fly to Saudi Arabia to confer with Arab chiefs at a Gulf Cooperation Council summit. Here, it is likely he will rub elbows or privately talk with the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Not so long ago, candidate Biden, soon to turn 80, promised to cast bin Salman, soon to turn 38, as a pariah on the world stage, but that was before energy prices went stratospheric and the war in Ukraine impacted everybody and the price of everything. The president, it must be remembered, campaigned on a global human rights platform that placed particular odium on bin Salman for his unmistakable but unconvicted role in ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist lured to a meeting at the Saudi embassy in D.C. in October 2018 and never seen again. Khashoggi’s crime? Daring to write about the brutality and corruption woven into the DNA of the Saudi royal family. To quell the outrage, bin Salman ordered a show trial in which 11 functionaries were put on display and five ordered executed. But the sentences were subsequently commuted to life in prison.
This incident, of course, is probably the most notorious in the prince’s portfolio of misdeeds. MBS, as he’s known worldwide (with apologies to FDR, LBJ, and MLK), has also managed to stoke a brutal proxy war in Yemen that is still raging, despite U.S. pleadings, and ordered a blockade of neighboring Quatar on vague charges of its meddling in Saudi affairs. He continues to play palace intrigue like checkers, with periodic detentions and arrests of his closest relatives, which really means, in the Saudi scheme of things, his potential rivals.
In 2017, MBS rounded up several hundred members of the extended royal family and detained them at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. Torture and physical abuse were reported and those who finally won release had to buy their way out with what was, in effect, fealty to the crown prince amounting to billions.
And, oh yes, MLB, in his most obvious gesture at reform, has allowed the kingdom’s women to drive, but modestly and covered with head scarfs. (It doesn’t show much vision.) In all other respects, however, they are still relegated to second-class status. Despite the prince’s wide exposure to the West, he has declined to allow the Saudis to join the successful Abraham Accords and normalize relations with Israel, insisting this will not happen until the Palestinian situation is resolved (or until his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, 87, dies).
Meanwhile, Israel and the Saudis continue to cooperate secretly on security and intelligence gathering against their common enemy, Iran, and are interlocked economically through several projects. Last week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz officially disclosed that Israel and several unnamed Arab nations have established an alert system and countermeasures against Iran drone attacks, which, he said, already resulted in thwarting one such attempt.
MSB pursues his vision for the kingdom through a bulging sovereign wealth fund sustained by seemingly inexhaustible oil reserves. His stated goal is redirecting the country from a petrostate to a more diversified economic base by 2030. The prince, whose pique at the U.S. for calling him out in Khashoggi’s murder is quite evident, has several times rejected our requests to lift oil production beyond modest OPEC+ quotas as the Ukraine war and supply line disruptions cause extreme gasoline price volatility. And lately, he seems more consumed by golf rather than events in the Gulf or around the globe. He recently flexed his financial muscle by showering hundreds of millions of dollars on something called the LIV tour to rival and even take down the long-established PGA. That’s money for golf, not famine, poverty, or climate change. This shameless and egregious venture so far has been successful enough to dominate the sports pages and even attract the attention and condemnation of New York Times columnists Thomas L. Friedman and Paul Krugman. Friedman called it “sportswashing,” while Krugman denounced the sellout culture of athletes like Phil Mickelson, who take the millions and shill for shabby regimes.
However, the prince seems determined to embellish the Saudi brand and image without doing any of the real reform and heavy lifting at home or abroad. In this atmosphere, what kind of leverage does Mr. Biden bring to the table when he meets bin Salman on the sidelines or privately? Undoubtedly, the four issues the president will raise are oil production, human rights abuses, relations with Israel, and the Iran nuclear threat. How hard will he or can he press on each?
The United States maintains significant air, sea, land, and cyber assets in the region, while the Saudis buy enormous quantities of arms from us, in essence existing under an American umbrella of protection. We, in turn, buy significant amounts of oil from them, even though the United States is the world’s largest producer, at 12 million barrels a day, while the Saudis and Russia are tied for second at 11 million barrels daily.
But the kingdom has pumping capacity to spare, and is, in effect, the leader of OPEC, often pressuring other members to follow its bidding. Oil is fungible, volatile, and traded globally, and the royal family has elevated itself to grandmasters of the petro game, something that would have seemed unimaginable in 1945, when President Franklin Roosevelt hosted King Ibn Saud aboard his wartime cruiser as he returned home from the Yalta conference. The king brought along a considerable entourage and wanted his goats winched aboard for a seaborne feast but was dissuaded from doing so.
A weakened FDR (he was to die weeks later) reportedly fell under the rough-hewn spell of the Bedouin leader and fierce desert fighter, and didn’t press him hard on a Zionist state (Ibn Saud was an implacable foe) or on oil production. The meeting may have emboldened a generation of Arabists at the State Department who dominated policy for decades. On the flip side, the kingdom ramped up crude output in partnership with several American fossil giants through the consortium known as Aramco, until the royal family effectively took over its total operation in 1988.
Every motorist of a certain age knows when the Saudis literally had us over a barrel. Their oil embargo of 1973, in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War and later politically motivated cutbacks, rattled both the American economy and our individual sensibilities. However, when Saddam Hussein threatened the region with his occupation of Kuwait, the Saudis pumped at full capacity to supply the U.S.-led military coalition with all the petrol it needed.
What will President Biden’s play be when he meets the prince? In the short term, until the Ukraine war is resolved and shortfalls from the sanctions against Russian oil are covered, we will need Saudi production, and more of it, if a significant dent is to be made in the price at the pump. It’s a big ask, considering our recent frayed relations with the kingdom and a perception among Mideast countries that the U.S. isn’t as robust a player as it once was. Under these circumstances, the president can at the very least urge bin Salman to exercise restraint and promote the rights of his subjects as the Saudis carve out a bigger regional role for themselves going forward.
But it’s the second worst neighborhood in the world right now (Russia, Ukraine, and the Balkans have temporarily wrested the title), and its political and tribal alliances, sometimes as granular as the desert sands, are subject to shifts at the slightest incident.
Mr. Biden may be limited to moral suasion. If the Saudis refuse to budge on more production, the very foundations of a relationship between the two nations dating to the moment Ibn Saud came aboard FDR’s warship could be called into question. The president has virtually no other good foreign options among producing nations. Maduro’s Venezuela? Sanctions are in place. The ayatollah’s Iran? Severe sanctions are in place. Iraq? See the section on Iran. Leaderless, lawless Libya? Not much hope there.
Joe Biden has tried, so far without success, to jawbone, shame, and rally American oil producers into reopening plugged wells and increasing fracking. He has released petroleum from the strategic reserve and tried to couple it with a message that our long-term energy policy must hinge on increased green solutions, electric vehicles, conservation, and mitigating climate change. Until we get there, however, our leaders may be making further treks to the Saudis and importuning sketchy leaders like bin Salman.
In the more than half century since absorbing our first oil shocks, we have learned and put into practice precious little.
Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a former editor of the Star-Ledger and a copy editor with the Jewish Standard/NJJN.