President Biden’s pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia this week offers an opportunity to repair a relationship crucial to Mideast security. Unfortunately, the visit will be more of a PR stunt than any real reset of a strategic partnership.
U.S.-Saudi relations are the worst they’ve been in 50 years. During the 1973 oil embargo and after Sept. 11, the White House worked quietly to preserve its relationship with the Saudis, despite public anger at the kingdom. This time, Mr. Biden has personally led the anti-Saudi chorus by labeling the kingdom a “pariah” and refusing to talk with Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman.
That feeling has become mutual. In March, the crown prince declined a call from the White House. He is part of a new generation of Saudi leaders who don’t share their predecessors’ view that the U.S. is an essential security partner and are instead turning to China and Russia. China’s arms transfers to the kingdom have grown by nearly 400% over the past four years—mostly drones, which the U.S. refuses to sell Riyadh.
The 79-year-old president and the 36-year-old crown prince won’t be aiming to resolve these tensions. Both leaders are seeking personal gain more than advancing mutual security interests as each rightly distrusts the other’s commitment to cooperation. Mr. Biden, like President Obama, wants to improve relations with Iran, not Saudi Arabia—a country he disdains for its human-rights abuses and monarchy. For Crown Prince Mohammed, fear of Iran is the major reason to work with the U.S., although progress seems increasingly unlikely given the Biden administration’s pandering to Tehran.
The goal for both leaders, then, is public rehabilitation. Mr. Biden would like to secure more Saudi oil to ease pump pain for American voters ahead of November’s midterm elections. Crown Prince Mohammed would like to move past the
murder by securing a handshake with the U.S. president. He attained similar blessings this spring from the leaders of France, Britain and Turkey.
Because policy breakthroughs are unlikely, prepare for propaganda on so-called strategic achievements. Already the White House is suggesting that it’s played a role in transferring sovereignty of two Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The islands were demilitarized as a part of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and transferred by Egypt with Israel’s approval in 2018. The same applies to the Saudis’ permitting overflight of its airspace by flights to and from Tel Aviv. Team Biden is heralding this limited Saudi-Israeli cooperation as its own achievement even though it’s been under way for years. While informal, Saudi-Israeli relations are strengthening daily without U.S. help. Both nations fear Iran, and both doubt Washington’s security guarantees.
On Mr. Biden’s big ask—more oil production—he’s likely to fail. Saudi Arabia, the only country with large excess production capacity, is no longer willing to raise and lower oil output at Washington’s request. Even if it were, it would take all of Saudi Arabia’s million barrels a day excess capacity plus more from other producers to put real downward pressure on prices. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Plus agreed in June to raise output by 648,000 barrels a day in July and August, yet U.S. gasoline prices have dropped only to around $4.60 a gallon.
Notably, Crown Prince Mohammed seems more determined to protect the kingdom’s deepening relationship with Russia than a frayed security partnership with the U.S. That’s because the crown prince personally persuaded
in 2016 to coordinate Russia’s production with OPEC’s to help boost oil prices then at record lows.
The U.S. has offered no such cooperation, especially when it comes to the Saudis’ most significant concern: security. While the Biden administration is belatedly encouraging Israeli-Arab coordination against Iranian terrorist attacks on oil facilities, there is no concrete plan in place to do so. Gulf countries remain divided on air-defense coordination, fearing a much larger Saudi Arabia would dominate any such cooperation. They also are divided on coordinating with Israel. The failure of the Trump and Biden administrations to respond to repeated Iranian missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has left both nations angry and dubious of U.S. promises. Any security pledges made at this summit by either side will require patient, incremental progress to rebuild trust.
Despite these challenges, the U.S. and the Saudis should rebuild cooperation. The security environment grows more precarious daily as Israel continues to attack Iranian defense and nuclear sites and Iran moves ever closer to nuclear breakout. Saudi leaders fear an Israeli attack against Iran would prompt damaging missile strikes by Tehran on Saudi oil facilities, sending Riyadh’s revenue plummeting even as global oil prices skyrocket. This alone is sufficient reason for Riyadh and Washington to seek a coordinated strategy led by the U.S. to protect the Gulf.
Absent that, Arab countries have begun to take tentative steps to coordinate security measures. Iraq and Saudi Arabia last month held a joint military exercise for the first time in more than two decades. Crown Prince Mohammed has also visited Jordan and Egypt, two Saudi allies that have peace treaties with Israel. Perhaps Mr. Biden’s most important meeting on this trip is a summit of Gulf countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Each country is skeptical about U.S. commitment.
Even if Mr. Biden walks away with nothing concrete on oil or security, his administration will still benefit from a firsthand look at the dramatic transformation under way in Saudi Arabia. Once a rigidly fundamentalist country spreading Islamic radicalism throughout the Mideast, the kingdom has become a regional model of social liberalization and religious tolerance. Ironically, Saudi Arabia is both a more essential and more worthy security partner now than it was nearly eight decades ago when
Franklin D. Roosevelt
launched the partnership. It isn’t a democracy, nor do most Saudis wish it to be. But it is a wealthy, powerful country with a leader determined—with or without Mr. Biden’s blessing—to place his kingdom at the forefront of the developed world. And at his age he has at least 50 years to get the job done.
The summit seems likely to humble the president who had sought to humble the crown prince.
Ms. House, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, is author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future.”
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