Why Biden Will Have a Hard Time Trying to Persuade Saudi Arabia to Boost Oil Output
US President Joe Biden is expected to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his July trip to the Middle East which includes stops in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia. According to the US press, Biden's upcoming visit to Riyadh is a remarkable shift from his earlier threats to turn the kingdom into a "pariah" state.
"When Biden first came to power and oil prices were relatively low, there was this idea among Biden's advisers that they had space to flex against Saudi Arabia and that Saudi Arabia did not have the leverage that it has," explains Sami Hamdi, a UK-based Middle East political analyst and head of International Interest, a risk analysis group. "But, of course, as oil prices and energy prices shot up for ordinary Americans in the US, Biden has suddenly realised that he needs the Saudis more than he thought he would need them."
Since the beginning of 2021, prices for oil have soared more than two-fold in the US. Regular gasoline prices per gallon averaged $4.986 on 10 June, up 14 percent from May 2022 and more than 62 percent from 2021.
However, the first harbinger of the emerging energy crisis came in October 2021 with Joe Biden starting to send emissaries to Riyadh. They tried to convince Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to bring prices down but to no avail, according to Hamdi. The political analyst notes that at that time the US president made it clear that he would not directly communicate with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which apparently was a mistake on his part.
Even though Riyadh maintained good relations with the Donald Trump administration, the Saudi leadership has been at odds with the Democratic Party establishment for a while, according to Dr Ahmed Al Ibrahim, a Riyadh-based political analyst. US-Saudi relations had been particularly strained under President Barack Obama, over the latter's nuclear deal with Iran - Riyadh's regional competitor - as well as the US president's criticism of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took the reins after ousting Mohammad Morsi, a long-time Muslim Brotherhood* leader.
"The relationship between Saudi Arabia and America in the past, let's say 20 years, has been a rollercoaster," says Al Ibrahim. "Mr. Biden is nothing but a replica of President Obama."
From day one of his presidency, Biden tried to "recalibrate relations" maintained by his predecessor Donald Trump with Riyadh. The Biden administration halted support for the Saudi-led coalition and its military operations in Yemen, put on pause US-Saudi arms deals and started talks over resumption of the Iran nuclear deal. In February 2021, the Biden administration accused the Saudi crown prince of "approving" the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist
Jamal Khashoggi, something that Riyadh – that carried out an extensive investigation into the crime and punished the culprits – resolutely denied.
Biden's Two Major Objectives
When it comes to the goals Biden will pursue, the US president primarily wants to convince Saudi Arabia and OPEC to increase production to bring down oil prices, observers believe. However, this talk will be no walk in the park for Biden, according to Al Ibrahim.
"Saudi Arabia has a commitment to OPEC+. And this commitment is unbreakable," the Riyadh-based analyst stresses. "In any case, the oil market is being checked thoroughly, if there is any shortage, the OPEC+ countries are going to put up and push in and put up more oil production. As far as breaking the annual rule with OPEC+ - this is not going to happen. If this is one of the reasons Mr Biden's coming over here to discuss with our leadership - this is not going to happen."
Second, Biden may try to push for normalisation of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, alleges Hamdi.
For decades Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have refused to forge official diplomatic ties with Israel, over what they see as Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In 2020, the Trump administration helped arrange the so-called Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, which were later joined by Morocco and Sudan. However, Saudi Arabia did not follow suit, albeit providing its airspace for air traffic between Israel, Bahrain and UAE.
One should not expect Saudi-Israeli normalisation in the foreseeable future as Riyadh does not want to grant the Biden administration such a brilliant opportunity among other reasons, according to Aziz Alghashian, a lecturer at Essex University.
"It's an achievement that really the Saudi ruling elite don't want Biden to have," argues Alghashian. Not only do [the Saudis] want someone they like in the White House, but more importantly than having good relations, they want this as a reward for any US president that will really help change something fundamental for Saudi Arabia or at least they will gain something very strategic and long term from the United States for Saudi Arabia."
'US Pushing Its Allies Away'
Biden's objectives to drive oil prices down and negotiate an Israeli-Saudi deal are aimed at scoring some political points at home as his party's election chances in November mid-terms look bleak, according to the observers.
"From Biden's perspective, it's the local economy that matters, it's the domestic economy that matters, that takes priority, and that will influence voters at the ballot box," says Hamdi.
Even though the US president may not get what he wants, "a visit to Saudi Arabia is better than not coming at all," notes Al Ibrahim, adding that Riyadh has a long record of mutually beneficial relations with Washington and still maintains close ties with the US, the American military and intelligence services.
At the same time, the Riyadh-based analyst draws attention to the fact that the Democratic leadership is trying to pin the blame for rocketing oil prices on the Saudis. However, it's the Biden administration which is responsible for the hike in the first place, according to Al Ibrahim.
"The problem here, the US is pushing their allies away," says the analyst. "No matter how long we sit and explain to the US: 'What you're doing is wrong.' We are not trying to lose the United States - America is pushing us away. And guess what? If America doesn't want you, I'm not going to force myself on the United States. I mean, I would like to make myself clear. I tried. I just stood by you, and you decided to push me away. That's what's happening with the US."
*Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist group banned in Russia and many other countries.