The specter of a problematic crown prince hangs over Biden’s policies in Saudi Arabia | American foreign policy


When Joe Biden was recently requested if gas prices were to come down soon, the US president offered an enigmatic explanation of how his strained relationship with Saudi Arabia was at least partly to blame for the price at the pump.

Gas prices were high because the oil-rich countries of the Middle East did not increase oil supplies. This was happening, Biden suggested, in retaliation for his personal decision not to speak – or recognize – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as his counterpart.

“Gas prices are tied to a foreign policy initiative that goes beyond the cost of gas,” Biden said at a town hall on CNN. “There are a lot of people from the Middle East who want to talk to me. I’m not sure I’ll talk to them.

He later added: “There is a possibility that you can take it down, it depends a bit on Saudi Arabia and a few other things coming up.”

The White House declined to comment further on Biden’s comments and did not respond to questions from the Guardian about how the apparent consideration Biden alluded to was communicated to the administration.

But experts in Washington said there was no doubt that Biden’s remarks indicated Saudi Arabia was demanding more personal attention from the president, despite several high-level meetings in recent weeks between senior officials. administration officials and their Saudi counterparts, including a recent trip by Jake Sullivan. meet Prince Mohammed in Riyadh.

The Crown Prince is likely looking for a phone call similar to the one he received from Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump in april 2020, when the then president telephoned Prince Mohammed and Russian President Vladimir Putin and called for a global deal to cut oil production. In this case, U.S. shale companies had been hit hard by a standoff between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and Trump went on to boast that his call helped end the apparent rift.

The current president’s ongoing snub mirrored Biden’s campaign pledge to turn Prince Mohammed’s government into an “outcast” over the gruesome murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi: a wish he did not have held, aside from his personal avoidance of the prince.

“Would MBS use his influence over Biden to force the administration to reverse its position?” I would say the answer is absolutely yes. MBS is notoriously thin-skinned. He is angry with the administration’s position, even though the administration has taken a much more modest approach than people expected, ”said Gerald Feierstein, former US ambassador to Yemen.

The US president’s upcoming trips to Europe, including the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, where Prince Mohammed will also appear, have raised questions about whether Biden will recognize the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, or instead avoid the 36-year-old at all costs.

“I would not advise meeting with MBS,” said Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s former deputy national security adviser. “[MBS] aims to communicate that there is no consequence to what he has done. Normalizing his status as a de facto head of state is integral to his desire to put the Jamal Khashoggi episode behind him. “

A man walks his dog outside an art installation by Mohammed bin Salman in Los Angeles this month to highlight the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Photograph: Ringo Chiu / Zuma Press Wire / Rex / Shutterstock

While embarrassing encounters can sometimes occur on the world stage – from Obama’s gaze with Putin in 2014 to the former president’s regrettable handshakes with Muammar Gaddafi and Hugo chavez – there are ways to try to avoid such encounters, Rhodes said.

“At the very least, you avoid a bilateral meeting. But I’ve been in circumstances where the president didn’t want to be photographed shaking hands with someone, for example. You have the secret service [to shield the president] and you can communicate that you want to avoid a meeting, ”Rhodes said.

Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, a Saudi expert and former CIA analyst, said Biden can expect Prince Mohammed to aggressively seek a handshake if the two are nearby.

“I think he should go a lot further than not talking to her,” Riedel said.

Experts agreed the real issue wasn’t whether Biden could face an embarrassing moment of ’embarrassment’ with a prince who was recently called a ‘psychopath’ by a former senior Saudi intelligence official, and who , according to US intelligence agencies, authorized Khashoggi’s murder. Instead, the question reflects a larger debate within the administration on how to deal with “MBS”.

“Can you keep saying we’re not going to deal with the crown prince?” My personal view is that even if you can at the moment, it doesn’t make sense in the long run. Because sooner or later MBS will be king, and at that point they will have to deal with him as head of state, ”Feierstein said.

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