Analysis | In US-Saudi Reset, the Kingdom Holds All the Cards

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The White House has confirmed that President Joe Biden will visit Saudi Arabia next month, where he is expected to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That’s the same prince Biden vowed to make a pariah for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist.

The Biden administration is trying to spin this as a reset of US-Saudi relations, with the implication that the president is magnanimously repealing the prince’s pariah status.

Don’t believe it. Biden’s attempt to isolate the prince has been a miserable failure. No world leader of any consequence joined the US president in shunning the Saudi heir to the throne: On the contrary, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Boris Johnson have all paid court to MBS, as the prince is commonly known.

If Biden is now beating a path to the kingdom, it is because he desperately needs Saudi Arabia to increase its crude oil output to tame prices that have soared since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After weeks of intense importuning by US officials, the Saudis agreed to increase production by a bit, but not enough to soften prices.

This allows MBS to look generous without losing significant revenue. And with Biden now obliged to plead for more — he needs prices at the pump to fall ahead of midterm elections in November — it is the prince, not the president, who will set the terms of any reset.

What MBS wants, first and foremost, is Biden’s contrition. This he essentially got as soon as the White House announced plans for the meeting. The Saudis know a US president can’t very well apologize to a foreign potentate, but it won’t take much spin to turn a handshake into a gesture of penitence. The prince will be portrayed as mature and statesmanlike for rising above his guest’s previous name-calling.

Beyond the embarrassment of the moment, Biden should be grateful for the chance to escape the corner into which he had painted himself by refusing to deal directly with MBS upon being sworn in last year. (That he had little hesitation in speaking with other blood-stained tyrants only made his position more ridiculous.) Biden must be able to deal directly with the man who runs the country that is so vital to American economic and geopolitical interests. Beyond that, MBS doesn’t need a great deal from Biden, and what he does want is mostly in America’s interest to give, anyway.

For decades, the House of Saud, as the royal family is known, has been able to depend on American arms — and occasionally, American armies — for protection from its enemies. Apart from outfitting the Saudi military with the best weapons petrodollars can buy and devoting substantial resources to protecting the shipping lanes crucial to Saudi exports, the US has intervened to save the kingdom from invasion by the likes of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and guard it from the malign intentions of Iran.

Saddam is long gone, but the threat from Tehran looms ever larger over Riyadh: It was only months ago that rockets and missiles were being lobbed at the Saudi capital by Iranian proxies to the north (in Iraq) and the south (in Yemen) of the kingdom. The attacks have been halted by a truce in Yemen, but MBS knows that at any moment Iran can unleash its attack dogs on Saudi oil infrastructure and urban centers.

Russia and China may be able to sell the Saudis military hardware, but they aren’t in the same league as the US missile-defense systems that have prevented the rockets from hitting Riyadh. And since both Moscow and Beijing are friendly with the regime in Tehran, MBS will always be suspicious of their loyalties in the event of a Saudi-Iranian confrontation.

So MBS will want Biden to provide a full-throated reassurance that the kingdom can depend on the US security umbrella, literal and figurative. He will also want unrestrained access to American weapons. Biden has been hot and cold on this, having first ended US military support for the Saudis in the war in Yemen and then approving the sale of missiles to Riyadh.

In Washington, where the memory of the Khashoggi murder hasn’t entirely faded, there will be some resistance to giving MBS a carte blanche. But it shouldn’t be hard for Biden to persuade Congress that this is a price worth paying for cheaper gas.

MBS will also want reassurances that Biden’s eagerness to make a nuclear deal with Iran won’t give Tehran license (and, upon the lifting of economic sanctions, vastly increased resources) to extend its influence across the Middle East and use its proxies to lean even more heavily on Saudi Arabia.

There is a chance that this concern will be moot, since the Iranian regime seems intent on sabotaging the nuclear talks in Vienna by making impossible demands. But Biden will at least need to persuade the prince that, should a deal be struck, the US will double down on the defense of Saudi interests.

Having talked himself into this mess, it is now up to Biden to talk himself out of it. He seems already to be rehearsing for his upcoming trip by offering praise for the extension of the truce in Yemen. “Saudi Arabia demonstrated courageous leadership by taking initiatives early on to endorse and implement terms of the UN-led truce,” he said in a statement. He may have avoided mentioning MBS there, but the prince will have the final word when the president arrives in Riyadh.

More From Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Saudi Arabia’s Chief Oil Whisperer Spills Some of His Secrets: Javier Blas

Saudi Megaproject Is Big on Hubris and Low on Practicality: Bobby Ghosh

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

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