US President Joe Biden’s Saudi lesson: The only way is through MBS

The Saudi Arabia that US President Joe Biden will visit this week is a country actively reshaped by the whims and visions of one man: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

As the de facto ruler of the oil-rich monarchy, the 36-year-old prince has cast himself as a reformer, easing some restrictions in ultra-conservative Islam by allowing women to drive and permitting formerly banned cinemas and concerts .

But the prince’s rule has also been defined by his institutionalization of force – both to stifle domestic dissent and to pursue a tougher foreign policy. Moving beyond the old Saudi model of quiet culture of influence with money-driven diplomacy, MBS has bombed Yemen, aggressively imprisoned activists and critics and, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, sent the commando that assassinated Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

It was because of these human rights concerns that Biden vowed on his election campaign to make Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ and once refused in power to speak with Prince Mohammed, seeking to punish him with isolation. It did not work.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affecting oil prices and Iran set to expand its nuclear capabilities, Biden suddenly needs help from Saudi Arabia – and must face the reality that the only way to getting it is through MBS, widely known as MBS. fact that MBS has managed to maintain his position at the national level, he is the necessary interlocutor if you want to talk to Saudi Arabia,” said Cinzia Bianco, visiting researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Whatever the outcome of the trip, the image of Biden meeting MBS on his own turf will validate the young royal’s position at the helm of one of the most important countries in the Middle East and give his vision a boost. of the kingdom and its most powerful place in the world.

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Biden’s critics say it’s dangerous, demonstrating that wealth and oil remain paramount in great power politics and belying Biden’s vow to pursue a foreign policy based on human rights. How, they ask, will the United States discourage other autocrats from crushing their critics after ignoring MBS’s abuses in hopes he can lower gas prices?

Middle East scholars point out that the United States has a long history of doing business with autocrats, including all Saudi kings, and that engagement could shape their behavior more effectively than ostracism. Perhaps, they argue, a closer American relationship can cultivate the good and discourage the bad in the way MBS wields his immense wealth, power and ambition.

MBS appeared out of nowhere seven years ago when his elderly father King Salman ascended the throne and began devolving power to his favorite son. But MBS has shown he wants total control and will do whatever it takes to get it, including sidelining, locking up and draining the fortunes of his rivals within the royal family.

As he consolidated his power, he made it clear that he had big plans for Saudi Arabia: ignoring the kingdom’s past as a sleepy oil monarchy, ruled by a hyperconservative interpretation of Islam, which pursued its interest quietly, usually in disbursing huge amounts of money.

Instead, he wanted the kingdom to claim a position as a global player, known not just for oil and Islam, but for a vibrant and diverse economy that produced its own weapons, invented new technologies and attracted tourists. to swim along its beaches and visit its historic sites. This vision remains a work in progress.

Social changes have moved much faster than most Saudis expected. After Prince Mohammed stripped the once-feared religious police of the power to impose his version of moral austerity on people, women were given the right to drive, dress restrictions were eased and a new government body to build an entertainment industry hosted concerts, pro wrestling events, and monster truck rallies.

Prince Mohammed faces an uphill battle to diversify the Saudi economy away from its overriding dependence on oil. But high world prices caused by war in Ukraine have left it in the red, allowing the kingdom’s huge sovereign wealth fund to expand its investments abroad, including a new professional golf circuit.

Critics of Prince Mohammed accuse him of using these investments to distract from rights abuses at home and abroad. Despite a ceasefire that has temporarily reduced the level of violence, the kingdom remains mired in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has fueled one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Political repression in Saudi Arabia has spread, with activists, critics and clerics detained, banned from traveling abroad and prosecuted on charges that rights groups say have often were forged from scratch.

Efforts to stifle criticism have gone beyond the kingdom’s borders, notably in the case of Mr Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi operatives inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. An assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Prince Mohammed approved the operation. The prince denied any prior knowledge of the plot.

When Mr. Biden entered the White House, Khashoggi’s murder was still imminent and Prince Mohammed had every reason to prepare for a rocky relationship – not least because the prince had been particularly pals with President Donald J. Trump. and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and advisor.

Initially, Mr Biden had little interest in the kingdom, wanting to strike a new deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program and accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, the Saudis’ main staple.

Mr Biden was also hostile to Prince Mohammed, refusing to back down from his ‘pariah’ comment and refusing to speak to him, insisting the president’s counterpart was the king.

The Saudis also had political complaints.

They grimaced at US insistence on negotiating with Iran, fearing it would strengthen their regional foe. And they feared that the historic American commitment to Saudi security had diminished, especially as the Houthis, authorized by Iran, accelerated drone and missile attacks on Saudi cities and oil installations.

It was also interesting that Prince Mohammed seemed to get no credit for the kingdom’s social changes, nor for his own efforts to avoid regional conflict, including entering into talks with the Iranians in Baghdad.

The sense of neglect grew after the invasion of Ukraine, when administration officials hoped the kingdom would join efforts to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin and increase oil production to drive down prices.

Dennis Ross, who has worked for several presidents and is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the message he heard from several Saudis during a recent visit to the kingdom was: “Whenever the United States wants something from us, they don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and expect us to answer. But when we have a problem, we call and no one answers.

In an interview with The Atlantic in April, when asked if Mr Biden had misunderstood him, Prince Mohammed replied: “I just don’t care.”

He said neglecting Saudi Arabia would be bad for Mr Biden and could be a boon for China, with which the kingdom has forged ties. Recently, relations between the White House and Saudi Arabia have been so strained that analysts have described them with romantic metaphors.

Mr Ross compared the Saudis’ feelings to those of an ‘abandoned lover’ who wonders ‘why are you treating us this way?’

“The US-Saudi relationship, if it were a marriage, would be in dire need of guidance,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute.

In a Washington Post opinion piece about his trip to Saudi Arabia, Mr Biden did not mention Prince Mohammed’s name (but did mention Mr Khashoggi) and said his goal was to discuss energy , regional security and Iran with Arab leaders, including Saudi Arabia.

For their part, the Saudis announced that Mr. Biden and Prince Mohammed would hold “official talks”. During these, Mr. Biden is likely to find an assertive leader who knows he has something the United States needs and wants to receive something in return.

That could include progress on a more formal security guarantee or cooperation in areas other than oil, said Yasmine Farouk, nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The Saudis want to be treated like an American partner, and today the American partners are talking with the United States not only about security and oil, but also about technology, climate and energy,” she said. declared.

Even if the visit goes well, such cooperation takes time to develop. But for Prince Mohammed, she said, just bringing Mr Biden to Saudi Arabia was tantamount to “a triumph”.

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Kevin E. Boling