Oil vs human rights: Biden’s controversial mission to Saudi Arabia
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In the first few months of the year, as Iranian-backed militants launched a wave of missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, frustration towards the US was simmering inside the Gulf states’ royal courts.
The monarchies have long looked to Washington as their traditional security partner. But in their eyes, the US was displaying scant regard to the threat their nations faced as increasingly sophisticated weapons targeted cities, airports and oil infrastructure.
When US President Joe Biden ordered billions of dollars of armaments to Ukraine to help it fight Russia’s invasion, they saw this as further proof that Washington was not treating their longtime Gulf partners with the respect they believe they deserve.
While the Saudis and the Emiratis were smarting over security issues, the Biden administration had its own frustrations. It was angered by the Gulf leaders’ resistance to pump more oil to damp high energy prices and their refusal to distance themselves from Vladimir Putin, with whom they have nurtured closer ties in recent years.
Just as Russia’s aggression has injected fresh impetus into the transatlantic alliance, it has exposed the fraying nature of the two Gulf states’ decades-long partnership with Washington and brought into sharp focus tensions over the bedrock on which it was built: US security assurances to the oil-rich nations in return for a commitment to stable global energy markets.
“The war in Ukraine has been a blessing and a curse for the Gulf. They see America is back, not checking out and can mobilise when it wants to,” says Sanam Vakil, a Gulf expert at Chatham House. “The bad news for them is when the US mobilises for someone else, it’s a slap in the face.”
Instead of a rupture, however, the US and its Gulf allies have decided to try to mend fences. The White House announced on Tuesday that Biden will visit Saudi Arabia next month, where he will meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the day-to-day leader of the world’s top oil exporter.
It is a remarkable U-turn for a president who promised to treat the kingdom as a pariah and to engage with King Salman, not his son, MBS, as the heir apparent is known. Given that US intelligence agencies believe MBS authorised an operation to “capture or “kill” Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist murdered by Saudi agents four years ago, Biden will face criticism at home for abandoning his principles in the interests of trying to isolate Russia. Riyadh blamed the killing on a rogue operation by its own agents.
For many diplomats and observers, the Saudi visit is a sign of the enduring appeal of the energy-for-security pact that has defined the US relationship with the Gulf.
Washington needs help to limit the impact of the war in Ukraine on oil prices while the Gulf states remain heavily dependent on US military assistance, from missile defences to fighter jets.
“This is an opportunity for the US to reset the table . . . to make the region more comfortable and be self-aware about why their partners are concerned about the American commitment,” says one person briefed on the Gulf discussions.
The energy stability trade-off
Saudi Arabia appeared to smooth the path for a potential meeting this month by finally agreeing to a modest increase in crude output with its producer allies in Opec+. Biden described the move as a “positive”.
Some of the president’s aides have for months pressed Biden to put aside his moral outrage and push for rapprochement, arguing that it is worth accepting the trade-offs of engaging with MBS in exchange for energy stability. The White House had previously considered a meeting between Biden and MBS at last October’s G20 summit in Rome, but those tentative plans were scuppered when the prince chose not to attend, say people familiar with the matter.
Emboldened by their leverage in energy markets, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to want signs of tangible support, not simply reassurances about US commitments. High on their agenda will be a push for more formal, institutionalised security partnerships with the US, including improved intelligence and military co-operation to tackle the menace of missiles and drones.
When former US diplomat Dennis Ross, a veteran of the Middle East who has pushed for “balanced” relationship with Saudi Arabia, recently visited Riyadh, he detected a sense of “injured pride”. The message from Riyadh, he says, was “‘don’t take us for granted and think that you can just dictate to us, and don’t humiliate us’”.
But Ross adds there was also an acknowledgment of the longtime strategic relationship between the countries. “I would hear it’s not there yet, and ‘we still have questions and we still worry will this administration withdraw?’” Ross says. “And even if this administration won’t, how do we know what the next one will do?”
The fear some in the Gulf have about US disengagement was aggravated last year after the US pulled some of its air defences from the kingdom for maintenance and rotation purposes.
General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of the US Central Command, told a house committee in March that “we have worked closely with our Gulf allies to expand their ability to defend themselves”, adding that Saudi Arabia still has more than 20 Patriot anti-missile batteries.
But Riyadh saw the withdrawal of some air defence systems as a sign of what in their eyes is the politicisation of the US-Saudi relationship, particularly by progressive Democrats.
“There is a sense on the part of both the Saudis and Emiratis that when they were really feeling threatened, they didn’t see a sense of urgency on our part to be responsive,” Ross says. “Whether it’s a fair perception or not, is in many ways irrelevant, because that’s what they believe.”
But he believes the Russia crisis has sparked recognition in Washington of the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE — the only oil producers with the ability to significantly increase crude production — as Biden seeks to isolate Putin and stabilise energy markets.
“In some ways, what you’re looking at from the Biden administration is a kind of an updating and modernising of what was the traditional formula: ‘We take care of your security, you take care to ensure that energy supplies are what they need to be’,” Ross says.
In a sign of the shifting diplomatic mood, the UAE and the US have been drafting a new “security framework”, although nothing has been finalised, the person briefed on the UAE talks says.
A senior US official says Washington has “been in regular discussions with the UAE about strengthening our defence partnership to deter and respond to any future attacks”.
As well as seeking greater support to stabilise energy markets, Biden is also likely to seek some Saudi movement towards Israel, which the president will also visit. Israeli officials said discussions ahead of Biden’s visit had included the potential for Riyadh to expand Israeli overflights of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom does not have formal relations with Israel, but covertly co-operates with the Jewish state on security and intelligence issues.
However, it is not clear how far Biden will be willing to boost the security relationship with Saudi Arabia, given the potential backlash he would risk among some Democrats.
Speaking about the speculation that Biden would visit the kingdom, Adam Schiff, a leading Democrat, said he would not go to Saudi Arabia or shake MBS’s hand.
“This is someone who butchered an American resident [Khashoggi], cut him up into pieces in the most terrible and premeditated way,” Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, told US television this month.
Washington is dealing with a far more assertive, confident generation of Gulf leaders who have been hedging their relationships to be more independent of the US. It is one of the factors that has pushed Riyadh and Abu Dhabi closer to Russia and China in recent years; another point of friction in their relations with Washington.
Biden angered leaders in the Gulf in his first days in office by ending Washington’s support for the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war. He froze “offensive” arms sales to Saudi Arabia and lifted a terrorist designation the Trump administration imposed on the Houthis. In Riyadh, officials saw a correlation between Biden’s decisions and an uptick in Houthi attacks.
The militants have been locked in a conflict with the kingdom since the Saudi-led coalition, which includes the UAE, intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 to support the ousted government. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi consider the Houthis an Iranian proxy, and they — and Washington — accuse Tehran of supplying the Islamists with sophisticated missile and drone technology.
In the first months of this year, the rebels launched almost weekly attacks into the kingdom, including a missile assault in March on Jeddah, the weekend the city was hosting a Formula One race. In January and February, they fired missiles and drones at Abu Dhabi, striking at the heart of power in the UAE.
As the vulnerability of his state was exposed, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s leader, was furious that Biden did not call him to offer support. The UAE then used its temporary seat on the UN Security Council to abstain on a US resolution in February condemning Russia in an extraordinary public gesture of frustration.
The Houthi threat has since diminished as a temporary truce in Yemen holds, and there is growing recognition in Washington that Riyadh is working to end the conflict. Biden praised Saudi Arabia’s “courageous leadership” when the truce was extended by another 60 days this month. But the Gulf states’ sense of vulnerability to Iranian aggression has not dimmed, and Biden’s push to strike a deal with Tehran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal adds another complicating layer to Gulf-US relations.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi worry that Washington is paying too little attention to Iran’s missile development and support for Shia militants across the region — the immediate threat to their security. Their fear is that Biden will reach an agreement to revive the accord former US president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 that emboldens the Islamic republic, while failing to check its regional activities.
Both the Emiratis and the Saudis hear echoes of the Obama administration, which signed the nuclear accord and angered Riyadh by saying the kingdom had to find a way “to share the neighbourhood” with its arch rival.
“The UAE was expecting the Biden administration to handle this differently,” the person briefed on Abu Dhabi’s position says. “But they’ve gone back to exactly where they were.”
The frustration is far from one way. Biden made clear his abhorrence of Khashoggi’s murder — unlike Trump, he released US intelligence agencies’ findings on the killing — and other rights abuses. In a 2019 presidential debate, Biden accused the Saudis of “murdering children” in an apparent reference to the war in Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition has drawn widespread criticism for air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians.
In a letter to Biden last week, Schiff and five other senior Democrats, urged the president to reiterate the demand for accountability for Khashoggi’s murder and to continue suspending offensive support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
Dawn, a Washington-based human rights group that Khashoggi co-founded, warned that efforts to repair Washington’s relationship with Riyadh “without a genuine commitment to prioritise human rights are not only a betrayal of your [Biden’s] campaign promises, but will likely embolden the crown prince to commit further violations”.
The UAE’s reputation in Washington is far less toxic, but it has not escaped criticism for its role in Yemen as Saudi Arabia’s partner in the coalition. Separately, it has frustrated US officials with other foreign policy pursuits, including its backing of renegade Libyan general, Khalifa Haftar, alongside Russia, during Libya’s civil war. It also ruffled feathers when it chose to be among the first Arab states to restore diplomatic relations with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. After Sheikh Mohammed hosted Assad in Abu Dhabi in March, Washington said it was “profoundly disappointed”.
Another point of contention has been the Gulf’s burgeoning relations with China and its appetite for Chinese technology, including Huawei 5G networks, despite Washington’s concerns about it being used to spy on American assets.
More recently there have been concerns that the UAE could become a hub for dirty Russian money and sanctions evasion.
“The fact that the Gulf states continue to miss the level of frustration in Washington, the intensity of frustration towards them, is a problem,” says Vakil.
For all their complaints, the US still maintains a substantial military footprint in the region.
The UAE is only the second state after the US to own the advanced Thaad air-defence system — the first time a Thaad was fired in combat was this year, to down a Houthi missile launched at Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is set to become the third country to own a Thaad system after the state department approved a $15bn deal for 44 Thaad launchers in 2017.
Tom Karako, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the kingdom is acquiring as many Thaads as the US Army.
“If anything, the US has been doing so much in fielding scarce air defences there at the expense of modernisation, strained operational tempo, and a relative neglecting of air defence needs in the IndoPacific,” Karako says.
The US military also provided the UAE intelligence when it struck back against Houthi targets after the strikes on Abu Dhabi, while the Navy’s Fifth Fleet announced in April a new task force to patrol waters off Yemen, which appeared to be a nod to Saudi and Emirati concerns. The message from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, however, is they want more.
So far, the signals out of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are that they are not yet willing to break their ties to Putin, despite the west’s attempts to isolate him and the invasion exposing weaknesses in Russia’s military.
At the beginning of the month, Saudi Arabia hosted Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a GCC meeting in Riyadh. Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria’s civil war to back Assad in 2015 elevated Russia’s role in the Middle East, even if it was on the opposing side to the Gulf states. Combined with Moscow’s relations with Iran, it has meant that fellow strongman Putin is increasingly viewed as a player — and potential spoiler — in the region.
Ross cautions that even if Biden does meet MBS “it’s not going to be like a light switch, where you flip it and everything is fine”.
“One of the reasons they’re hedging is because they want to be sure about us. The more sure they become about us, then the more they can adjust some of their behaviour,” Ross says. “But they’re not going to suddenly adopt a position that is the one we want simply because we want it.”
Additional reporting by James Shotter in Jerusalem
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