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Biden distanced himself from Saudi Arabia — until gas prices got bad

A “foreign policy for the middle class” and centering human rights collide in the Middle East.

An illustration showing Biden and Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, a street sign showing Jamal Khashoggi Way, and gas price signs in the background.
There seems to be conflicted goals among Biden’s slogans and his top hires, and perhaps for Biden himself. 
Amanda Northrop/Vox
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

As the average national gas price topped $5 a gallon, the White House formally announced that President Joe Biden, in a significant policy turnaround, would be traveling to Saudi Arabia.

On the campaign trail, Biden had called the oil-rich kingdom a “pariah” in response to US intelligence groups’ conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Though the US relationship with Saudi Arabia teetered along in the background, Biden had resisted directly meeting MBS. But July 13-16, he’ll travel to the Middle East. He’ll visit the Saudi city of Jeddah and meet about 10 Arab heads of state and travel to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.

Biden’s decision to go to Saudi Arabia in July as part of his first Middle East trip as president reveals the tensions at the heart of his foreign policy.

So far, there have been two foreign policy bumper stickers of his administration. The first: putting human rights at the center of foreign policy. As the US has put its diplomatic power into supporting Ukraine, Biden and his team lately have framed the issue more as supporting democracies versus autocracies.

The second bumper sticker is a foreign policy for the middle class, which feels like the international counterpart to Build Back Better. The idea, which Biden had put forth when campaigning, is that foreign policy is too often divorced from the daily lives of Americans in the heartland, and that what the US does abroad should work for them.

But making the case of a foreign policy for the middle class is tough when Biden’s signature foreign policy initiative — supporting Ukraine in Russia’s war of aggression, partly by levying sanctions on Russia’s energy exports and more — has exacerbated a volatile economic situation for middle- and working-class Americans.

It’s in this Middle East trip that these two taglines collide, as Biden will advocate for the US middle class in Saudi Arabia by focusing on energy policy (and regional security), thereby not centering human rights or democracy. “Look, human rights is always a part of the conversation in our foreign engagements,” a senior administration official said at a recent briefing. That’s a much softer message than putting human rights at the center.

Biden is not the first American president who has struggled to balance competing interests and values in the Middle East, but his two slogans uniquely capture this tension.

The problem is: If Biden’s Saudi Arabia visit might only incrementally lower gas prices, will it benefit the middle class?

The central tension of Biden’s foreign policy

The rollout of the trip has hardly shown any excitement on the president’s part to make amends with MBS. It was reported on June 2, and then the visit was pushed off a month, and only confirmed last week, with officials reluctant to say whether Biden would sit down with MBS (though the Saudi embassy did confirm it). On Friday, Biden said, “I’m not going to meet with MBS. I’m going to an international meeting, and he’s going to be part of it.”

The president’s team has conveyed that human rights remains on the agenda. As White House spokesperson John Kirby said, “I can just tell you that — that his foreign policy is really rooted in values — values like freedom of the press; values like human rights, civil rights.”

A security officer watches people attending an event celebrating the renaming of the street outside the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Jamal Khashoggi Way in Washington, DC, on June 15.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

There seem to be conflicting goals among Biden’s slogans and his top hires, and perhaps for Biden himself. The president may be the most resistant to meeting MBS. He said that his presidency “should stand for something,” when privately renouncing a prospective meeting with MBS in recent weeks, according to Politico, in what seemed like an Aaron Sorkin scene.

Biden’s unscripted comments in the past have also given a window into his thinking. At a Harvard Q&A in 2014, he chastised Arab and Muslim countries the US partners with for compounding the civil war in Syria; he blamed Saudi Arabia, among others, for contributing to violent extremism there. “Our biggest problem was our allies,” Biden said. When asked about how human rights considerations affect the US approach to Saudi Arabia, he said, “I could go on and on and on.”

His “pariah” comment and condemnation of Saudi Arabia at Democratic presidential debates also reflected more off-the-cuff remarks.

In short, “centering human rights” seemed to be not just a reaction to President Donald Trump’s coziness with dictators, but also a reflection of Biden’s gut feeling about democracies delivering better for people.

But Biden, on the campaign trail and in office, also talked adamantly about creating a foreign policy for the middle class. To add substance to the slogan, his advisers in 2020 released a think tank report that outlined the economic and trade implications of foreign policy that would “work” for the middle class. Its key recommendations are widely supported, albeit vague, like pursuing trade policies that create jobs, rebuilding relationships with allies, and protecting supply chains and people alike from inevitable economic shifts. There was little discussion of fossil fuel policy, though, except for a call to transition to renewable and green energy sources.

Now, with gas prices as high as they are, contributing to worsening inflation, that blueprint is being put to the test.

Domestically, “Biden’s drilling policies have nothing to do with gas prices,” as Vox’s Rebecca Leber explained. Internationally, the sanctions on Russia, along with surging post-pandemic demand, have contributed to the high price of global crude oil. Since imposing the sanctions, the White House has accelerated its energy diplomacy with countries like Venezuela and others.

The Biden White House is emphasizing the president’s commitment to human rights, while planning a trip to Jeddah with Arab leaders that looks like the opposite of the Summit for Democracy Biden hosted in December.

Some observers, like Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi entrepreneur and physician, think the administration can do both. “Despite being a victim of MBS and my family suffering on a daily basis from his ruthless campaign of intimidation” — Aljabri’s father is a former Saudi intelligence leader whom MBS has targeted, and Aljabri’s siblings are jailed in Saudi Arabia on spurious charges — “I still want to help the US relationship,” he told me. “I don’t think this is a fight of interest versus human rights. I think they’re intertwined.”

This tension is also reflected in the personnel Biden has hired. “Candidate Biden said stuff that he did not even implement in his choice of the people who are going to manage this relationship,” Yasmine Farouk, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, told me. Most Biden appointees agree that, on Saudi Arabia, “we should preserve this partnership and make it better, instead of having them as enemies or, you know, keeping in distance with them.”

US special envoy Brett McGurk meeting with MBS, then Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, in 2017.
Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/ Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The White House’s Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk, who has described himself as “a friend of Saudi Arabia,” epitomizes that worldview. “Look, I’ve worked with MBS, and he actually is someone who you can reason with,” McGurk said in 2019, when he was in the private sector. It was almost a year after MBS, the CIA had determined, had ordered the assassination and dismemberment of Khashoggi. In recent months, McGurk and energy envoy Amos Hochstein have been shuttling to Saudi Arabia.

It’s a contrast to other administration officials’ views. USAID Administrator Samantha Power delivered a talk billed as focused on “strengthening democracy and reversing the rise of authoritarianism across the world,” this week. “Look, on the Saudi trip, you know ... we have significant concerns about human rights. I think President Biden has been clear about that, will be clear about that,” she said.

Though Biden in his first month did release the US intelligence report showing MBS’s responsibility for the Khashoggi murder and other authoritarian acts, human rights watchdogs say that not enough has been done to hold MBS accountable, like directly sanctioning him. A group of NGOs called on Biden to establish preconditions for the trip, including releasing political prisoners documented by the State Department, ending travel bans and other surveillance tactics, a moratorium on executions, and improving women’s rights.

A former State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that human rights is just one item on a long list of issues. “I don’t see it being the make or break issue that, frankly, it has never been,” the official said.

Saudi oil isn’t going to make a huge difference for Americans

When the decision to travel to Saudi Arabia was first reported earlier in June, the trip was framed as about finding any way possible to lower oil prices while the US leads a charge against Russia, a major oil producer. But energy experts say that even with Saudi Arabia’s spare capacity and influence among other oil-producing countries in the region, there is no tap that can be quickly turned on.

“If any Americans are paying close attention to this, they couldn’t be faulted for thinking that President Biden is going to go to Saudi Arabia and then the next day, gas prices are going to come down,” Amy Hawthorne, of the Project on Middle East Democracy, said.

But, she and others said, that’s not how oil prices work.

Gas prices are high for two main reasons: issues with refineries’ capacity (which is low) and the price of crude oil (which is high due to demand surging during the relative Covid-19 recovery and supply dropping as less Russian oil enters the market). “The root cause is not about Saudi Arabia,” said Karen Young, an energy expert at the Middle East Institute. “But I think the administration is sort of focused on Saudi Arabia as a lever.”

A flaring tower and storage tanks at a refinery in El Paso, Texas, in December 2021.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Saudi Arabia could make a gradual adjustment to the global supply. As a leader within the oil-producing group OPEC+ (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, plus Russia), Saudi Arabia could push to ramp up oil production, but the group’s spare capacity is limited. Young says that Saudi Arabia probably could boost it an additional 2 million barrels a day. “It doesn’t necessarily do much to change where prices are,” she said.

Still, Biden seeks to do everything to lower prices. “It’s clear that this president — like just about every other president out there — wants to be understood by the American public as doing as much as he can to put pump prices in a downward motion,” said Jonathan Elkind, a former senior Obama Energy Department official who’s now at Columbia University.

Oil prices relate to factors that neither the US nor Saudi Arabia has individual control over, Elkind reiterated. But he added that Saudi producing more could make an incremental difference, and “you put enough increments together, and all of a sudden, you’ve got a sizable impact.”

If not oil, what is the purpose of the Mideast trip?

This week, Biden’s team has presented the trip as something different — perhaps more ambitious on Middle East policy and less ambitious on energy.

As the senior official briefed the press on the trip, the list of what would be accomplished got long: “expanding regional, economic, and security cooperation, including new and promising infrastructure and climate initiatives, as well as deterring threats from Iran, advancing human rights, and ensuring global energy and food security.”

The best prospect for success on the trip is in consolidating the Yemen ceasefire that has held for almost three months. US diplomat Tim Lenderking quietly negotiated the deal, after seven years of the Saudi-led coalition bombing the country. The US is in some ways a party to the conflict. The Department of Defense has “administered at least $54.6 billion of military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from fiscal years 2015 through 2021,” according to a newly released Government Accountability Office report. Biden last year said the US would stop supporting “offensive operations” in Yemen, though the suffering from US weapons continues.

Peace in Yemen is critical, but it doesn’t require a presidential visit.

There are a number of other goals the administration might pursue. Going to Saudi Arabia to assuage the concerns of the kingdom and other Arab states about a nuclear agreement with Iran may be a worthwhile endeavor — except that Iran and the countries negotiating with it, including the US, appear far from reviving the deal.

Biden may try to get Arab states more committed to sanctioning Russia; Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and others have been reluctant to pick a side in the conflict. And Israeli security will, at least implicitly, be baked into Biden’s meeting with Arab leaders as his team seeks to build on the Trump administration’s normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states. (The Israel and Palestine stops will have their own issues and pitfalls.)

One possible outcome of the trip would be a move toward rebuilding an institutional relationship with Saudi Arabia.

While the kingdom was conservative in all senses of the word before MBS, it did have a more consultative governing process and less restrictive political environment, and the US maintained normal relations with the royal family’s government. The Biden administration has resisted deepening relations with MBS so far. Biden also didn’t quickly dispatch a US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The nomination hearing for his choice, Michael Ratney, was held last week, and Biden announced his nomination more than a year after taking office.

Aljabri thinks the White House and National Security Council are playing too big of a role in engaging Saudi Arabia’s leadership and the US government should work more closely with Riyadh through established forums. That would look less like National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meeting with MBS, or McGurk managing high-level relationships, and more like engagement up and down the Saudi system.

“Trying to rekindle the institution-to-institution partnerships between high-level officials, and taking MBS out of the equation is the way forward,” Aljabri said.

Still, more engagement risks empowering MBS. He is more of a Saddam Hussein-like leader than a benign dictator, critics warn, and he may not be a trustworthy partner.

Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence official who has worked extensively in the Middle East, described MBS as a rogue leader who, in an unprecedented fashion, has jailed members of the royal family to consolidate his power. “The result of this is a recklessness that has been truly astounding,” he told me.

“To me, it’s an unnecessary visit that is not likely to enhance the president’s poll numbers,” said Riedel, who is now a Brookings Institution fellow. “In fact, it’s likely to diminish them, because when you get to the first of August, and the price at the gas station is still $5 a gallon, people are going to be pretty disappointed: ‘So we went to Saudi Arabia, what is the payoff for me?’”

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