Biden’s fruitless visit to Saudi Arabia and beyond: the elephant in the room remains

Last month US President Joe Biden visited the Middle East, including Israel, the occupied West Bank and Saudi Arabia, in his first visit to the region after his inauguration. A week before the controversial visit, the president commented on the reasons and motivations behind his expedition to the region in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

Biden used the article to articulate several issues which are critical to regional states and America and which he hoped to accomplish through the visit. He also underlined the importance of ‘an integrated Middle East’ for American interests with respect to the energy supply chains that the American economy relies on and to eliminate  any potential threats to the American homeland. The impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on global trade and energy prices were central in Biden’s ‘excuses’ to visit Saudi Arabia and assure energy sources.

However, he interestingly also stated that that his adminstration has reversed “the blank-check policy” towards Saudi Arabia that it had inherited. Therefore, the piece was  seemingly targeted toward a domestic audience as the justifications Biden gave were clearly oriented to America’s interests in the Middle East: mitigating the Russian/Chinese alliance and securing energy supplies.

Biden met in Jeddah with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plus three, referring to Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. The meeting, named the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, was the first summit of its kind among these nine countries. The parties reaffirmed the security challenges facing the Middle East and agreed on multidimensional cooperation over terrorism, pandemics, climate crisis, food and energy security. During the summit, once again, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) legacy was one of the central dynamics.

While the visit has positive projections for both American and Saudi interests, it is questionable whether it will lead to a re-orientation in Saudi-American ties or not.

The tension between the two counties was based on various factors including energy prices; Biden’s ostracizing the Kingdom due to his position on the Yemen war; the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the rising influence of Russian and Chinese power in the region. Amid these global and regional agendas, the trip underlined the legacy of MbS and the de-securitization of the existence of the Israeli state as some of the key issues it discussed. 

A legacy culminating in a first bump download

The United States has decades-long strategic partnerships in the Middle East region. Recently, the American agenda in the region was not surprisingly based on mitigating Chinese and Russian influence and the impact of Ukrainian war. Biden was welcomed by Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca province, a clear rebuff when compared to the visit of former US president Donald Trump, who was welcomed by the crown prince himself at the airport.

Later, MbS received Biden with a first bump, not without a smile. Although MbS himself was named as the highest ranked person behind the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and Biden had previously depicted Saudi Arabia as a ‘pariah’ state, the Crown Prince took every opportunity to take photos alongside Biden and demonstrate to the world that he was no longer a pariah.

Fundamental American Values

The two parties shared joint statements over their growing cooperation to mitigate threats in the region and their intention to follow ‘noble’ values and human rights in  policy making. Biden underlined several times in his op-ed and speech to the press that bilateral ties would be based on ‘fundamental American values’ in accordance with the UN Human Right Charter.

The emphasis was an awkward fit with his past public accusations of the Crown Prince’s culpability in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. In this “new and more promising chapter of America’s engagement” in the Middle East, Biden’s way of dealing with the Khashoggi trial is relevant not only for justifiying his futher cooperation with MbS, but also for giving a green light to the Crown Prince’s legacy.

Going back to February 2021, right after Biden took presidential office, he had a phone call with King Salman affirming “the importance the United States places on universal human rights and rule of law.” However, in the White House’s statement, there was no mention of Khashoggi by name. Biden also commented positively on the release of several Saudi-American activists and Loujain al-Hathlou, a prominent Saudi women’s rights activist.

In his opinion piece, Biden tried to show Saudi Arabia’s importance for the needs of the American market and politics, but mantained that he would remain “holding true to fundamental American values”, while outcomputing rivalries and strengthening cooperation:

“As president, it is my job to keep our country strong and secure. We have to counter Russia’s aggression, put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China, and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world. To do these things, we have to engage directly with countries that can impact those outcomes. Saudi Arabia is one of them, and when I meet with Saudi leaders on Friday, my aim will be to strengthen a strategic partnership going forward that’s based on mutual interests and responsibilities, while also holding true to fundamental American values”.

However, America itself does not have the best record on human rights  in its Middle East policy, a point which MbS used while talking to Biden over the killing of Khashoggi.  As we learned from Prince Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, that MbS inquired into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shereen Abu Aqleh and the Abu Ghraib prison incident in Iraq, among other scandals America has been accused of.

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When it comes to Biden’s visit to the Kingdom, Saudi officials framed their narrative over the trip and particularly the questions on Khashoggi by imitating the so-called ‘values’ discourse. After the visit, Saudi Foreign ministry shared a banner that stated the Crown Prince’s words: “We are proud of our noble values, and we will never abandon them.”

In a similar vein, while responding to a question from Arab News, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Foreign Minister, built his answer for how Biden and MbS discussed the murder of Khashoggi around Saudi values:

“The respect for human rights is core value of Saudi Arabia based on Islamic beliefs and our Arab heritage…we have our own values and those values we are not going to align 100% with the US values ever because we are very proud of our own traditions, our own values, our own faith…”

The questions arises though, is this emphasis by the Saudi leadership on values and being proud of Saudi tradition targeted toward the domestic or international audience? There are no tools to understand genuine reactions in the Saudi public with respect to the killing of Khashoggi or Saudi-American bilateral ties other than private and unanimous conversations.

The Saudi official narrative might not be convincing for anyone in the Kingdom, but the public is obligated to adopt the official comments on the subject. However, the key point here is how the US or any other external power interprets these internal affairs. Is US patronage over in the Kingdom? Or is the Saudi leadership utilizing a discourse of ‘noble Saudi values and traditions’ to deflect from the current inquiries over human rights violations?

The Crown Prince’s entrepreneurial utopia 

The current galvanization of national pride in Saudi Arabia based on the Crown Prince’s rising young leadership and Vision 2030 has two main agendas: reducing the influence of the long-dominant religious establishment as Eman Alhussein states and nurturing economic development out of a construction of a ‘proud to be Saudi nation.’

Saudi Vision 2030 provides the key relationship between the consolidation of  leadership and ‘the values’ that society is based on. Eman Alhussein aptly states that “a core purpose of the new nationalism is to speed the rise of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and back his reform agenda.” This populist national narrative via words of Madawi Al-Rasheed, means that the previously promised Islamic Utopia is,

“gradually giving way to the promotion of a local Saudi entrepreneurial utopia. The crown prince features at the centre of these projects and has become a cult figure, with domestic and global worshippers, apologists and disciples. All are engaged in redefining heritage and, above all, loyalty to the prince.”

A closer examination of the document on Vision 2030 provides some hints over the values and traditions articulated with regard to the imagination of the future Saudi society. The vision is focused on an entrepreneurial utopia, as al-Rasheed interprets it, promoting economic targets. It proposes three main clusters, with two of them relavent to setting goals for locals to contribute more to the economic structure: ‘Ambitious nation’ and ‘Thriving economy.’

Meanwhile, the third pillar of ‘Vibrant Soceity’ briefly touches upon strengthening national and Islamic identity by enhancing cultural heritage, the Arabic language, fostering Islamic values of moderation and tolerance; and managing the Hajj and Umrah well.

Therefore, given that pressure for transparancy over how the Kingdom has dealt with the killing of Khashoggi is being depicted as attempts to force the Saudi authorities to follow Western values or ‘fundemantal American values,’ the current pressure will likely on produce further politicization of ‘Saudi values’ amid this promotion of nationalism and a new and proud Saudi nation.

Yet, the narrative over values and populist interpretations of any challenge that the Saudi regime faces in international affairs does not answer, for example, why the Kingdom opened up its airspace for all international flights, including Israel.

Normalization with ‘the existence of a Jewish State’ 114370440 02 palestine un partition plan 640 nc

Before the Abraham Accords, even mentioning Israel’s name as a legal state was a contentious issue among Gulf politicians and political elites. In spite of the Saudi elites’ bold no to establishing ties with Israel,’ the most critical outcome of the visit was a de facto normalization of Israel’s existence. 

The expectation from Biden’s entourage was not to bring Saudis and Israelis together, but rather to open a channel of diplomacy over the growing threat from Iran’s nuclear program and regional policy amid the war in Ukraine and energy crisis.

Right after Biden landed in Israel, Saudi aviation authorities issued a declaration opening Saudi airspace “to all flights which meet international specifications” without excluding flights from Israel. This decision will allow Muslims living in Israel to participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca with direct flights.

This symbolic act was an important step towards normalization with the existence of a Jewish state by Saudi Arabia, a country that was previously one of the region’s most vocal advocates of a Palestinian state. The military threats posed by Israel to the region’s Arab nations has been one of the top security issues as much as liberating Palestine and Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa have remained ambitions in the region. However, even beyond this, the idea of the existence of a Jewish state has been securitized and was previously not open for negotiation.

Despite the normalization between several Arab states and Israel, the Saudi regime has not given a blanket acceptance of the Abraham Accords. It, nonetheless, was a massive achievement for Israel. At the current stage, it is not diplomatic normalization, but an ontological acceptance of a Jewish state that is central. Put differently, Israel will stay as a fulcrum of regional tension for the unforeseen future, but its geopolitical existence is transitioning from the heavy securitization inherited over the years to a political stage.

Saudi opposition to Israel was supported on an ideological level by its positioning of itself as the leader of the Muslim Ummah. Therefore, the Kingdom cannot afford to be portrayed as an ally of the most hated state in the Middle East on the popular level. Regardless of what might happen behind closed doors, Riyadh will remain publicly against the recognition of Israel, until the establishment of a Palestinian state in Jerusalem, or will at least be the one of the last important regional states to do so.

Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia poses a transitional moment in relations between Arab states and Israel. Saudi Arabia’s use of discourse emphasizing its values is centered on Bin Salman, the current de facto ruler and expected future king, and his continued search for legitimacy.

Nonetheless, considering the Kingdom’s populist policies over values and and attempt to spark a new Saudi nationalism, Biden’s visit will pose more questions on unresolved regional issues like the war in Syria and Yemen than it will solve.

Will the current policy of ‘Saudi Arabia first’ prevent the Kingdom from taking further initiatives in these regional tensions?  Can Saudi leadership afford a delicate balance between the nationalism it is promoting and its status as a leading nation of the Ummah? The only assured result from the trip is that the elephant(s) in the room will remain a tinderbox in Saudi-American bilateral ties and regional affairs.