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With Saudi visit, Joe Biden shows rhetoric against autocracy is bluster

What, exactly, is the US getting out of this?

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON DC – The US president Joe Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia in mid-July.

Perhaps, in years and presidencies past, this would not have been major news. Saudi Arabia is, after all, a long-time US partner. But after the Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018, many politicians announced that it was time for something to change between Washington and Riyadh. US intelligence found the murder to have been ordered by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince himself; surely there was no arms deal or amount of oil that could justify continuing business as usual. Biden, when he was a candidate for president, vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”.

What, exactly, is the United States getting out of this?

Biden has tried to insist that his visit has nothing to do with higher gas prices, or with his requests to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), which Saudi Arabia leads, to increase production. “The commitments from the Saudis don’t relate to anything having to do with energy,” he told reporters over the weekend. “It happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia. That’s the reason I’m going. And it has to do with national security for them – for Israelis.”

It is true that Biden is also going to visit both Israel and the West Bank. It is true that Saudi Arabia does not, at present, have formal diplomatic ties with Israel, and that formalising a normalisation in relations is reportedly in the works. But given that Biden’s campaign came after the United Arab Emirates’s diplomatic recognition of Israel through the Abraham Accords, one must ask whether that is the whole reason. Given there have been public and, reportedly, private discussions about worries regarding gas prices, one is left to wonder whether energy will not also be factored in.

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And when one wonders that, one wonders whether anything – any war, any famine, any death – would be enough to make the US substantively change its relationship with a country that, by Biden’s own admission, should be treated like a pariah. The US president can try to argue that the world is divided into democracies and autocracies, or he can publicly praise the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The US president can tell European allies and partners that they need to wean themselves off Russian energy, or he can visit another, different autocrat and ask again for more.

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The US has also said that Saudi Arabia is critical to attempts to “build an enduring peace”, to use the US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s parlance, in Yemen. This is technically true, but somewhat misleading: the conflict in Yemen is between Houthi insurgents and a Saudi-led coalition.

In an interview on 14 June, Blinken told PBS, “Human rights will remain at the heart of our agenda, along with the other interests and values that we’re trying to advance.” He said he regularly raised human rights with his Saudi interlocutors. Whether this visit makes them more likely to be addressed is yet to be seen. Perhaps the president’s visit has little bearing on Saudi human rights one way or the other. Perhaps what the US does, or does not, do with respect to Saudi Arabia shapes the US, and its policies, much more than it does Saudi Arabia.

There are some who have hinted that the fact that the meeting is taking place in Jeddah and not in Riyadh, the capital, is suggestive of diminished importance. If all diplomacy is, to an extent, theatre, then this is the equivalent of an inconsequential prop switch. Biden said he would change the plot. He did not. It continues along as it was, both tragedy and farce.

[See also: Saudi Arabia is the biggest beneficiary of the war in Ukraine]