Abu Dhabi (CNN) – From having “no redeeming social value” to being a “strategic partner” of the United States. That’s how far Saudi Arabia has come in President Joe Biden’s eyes since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw oil prices soaring to eight-year highs.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and the US have deteriorated significantly since Biden replaced Donald Trump in the Oval Office. But that’s changing now as Biden makes his first visit to the kingdom as President this week and is likely to rub shoulders with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
Both former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump were ridiculed for bowing to the Saudi king during trips to the kingdom. Trump even made history by picking Saudi Arabia for his first presidential visit, which was characterized by sword dances, glowing orbs and pomp.
Biden is keen to save face by carefully choreographing the optics. In stark contrast to his predecessors, he isn’t even going to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, opting instead to hold a multilateral summit with regional leaders in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. The message is clear: This isn’t a state visit.
Both sides are going to spin the trip for their own political advantage, but the body language, handshakes and public statements will be most telling.
To get a real sense of where relations stand, here’s what to watch out for:
A call for Saudi Arabia to pump more oil
Faced with high gas prices and inflation that’s rising at the fastest pace since 1981, Biden needs to sell his trip domestically as being in the interest of the American public. The White House has said the visit would be “delivering results for the American people.”
But the administration is also keen to dispel the notion that Biden is going to Saudi Arabia hat-in-hand for more oil. Energy will be discussed given that Saudi Arabia is the chair of the OPEC oil cartel and its largest exporter, the White House has said, but that won’t be the primary purpose of the trip. The administration will convey its “general view” that there needs to be “adequate supply in the global market,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday.
Gulf Arab oil producers, led by Saudi Arabia, have been insisting that there’s no shortage of oil supply on the global market, and have opted to stick to OPEC’s alliance with Russia to control output.
Watch out for: Biden publicly calling for more oil production; Saudis saying the market needs more oil; Saudi comments on the future of OPEC’s alliance with Russia.
Acknowledgment of MBS’ leadership
Less than a month into his presidency, the White House said Biden would interact with Saudi Arabia on the head-of-state level, as the relationship with the kingdom would be “recalibrated.” The message was that MBS — the de facto ruler of the kingdom — would be shunned and dealings would only be with the king.
As recently as last month, the White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the President’s position on Saudi Arabia “still stands,” responding to a reporter’s question on whether Biden considers the kingdom to be a “pariah.”
But that could be about to change. The Biden administration says it plans to “reset” its relationship with Riyadh, and that the President’s meetings with Saudi officials will “include” MBS. But the White House has been vague on whether Biden and MBS will have a one-on-one meeting, or even if they’ll shake hands.
Watch out for: A public handshake between Biden and MBS, or a photo-op; Biden directly addressing MBS as a leader of Saudi Arabia; a one-on-one meeting between the two.
Commitment to Saudi security
Saudi Arabia has been frustrated by what it sees as the US’ waning interest in its security — but that view predates the Biden presidency. When Saudi oil facilities were bombed in a 2019 attack the Trump administration blamed on Iran, the US chose not to act, despite the event leading to the biggest jump in oil prices on record.
Saudi Arabia has also begun strengthening its military ties with Washington’s foe, China, a move that has raised eyebrows in Congress.
But the US has stepped up its rhetoric in support of Gulf security of late. It has however maintained a ban on the sale of offensive weapons to the kingdom since February last year due to its war in Yemen, but there’s a truce in place in Yemen now, and the US has praised Saudi efforts to achieve it.
US officials have told CNN that Saudi Arabia is seeking a viable strategy to deal with Iran as well as US security commitments should nuclear talks with Tehran fail. And Israel has said that it is working with regional partners to build a US-led Middle East air defense alliance. It’s not clear which other countries will be involved.
Biden is also expected to make a “major statement” on the administration’s strategy for the Middle East, Sullivan said on Monday.
Watch out for: The US overturning the ban on the sale of offensive weapons; a new strategy to protect Gulf states from Iran; an official announcement of a US-led Middle East air defense alliance.
US officials have told CNN that relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, who don’t have official diplomatic relations, are steadily improving and that discussions are underway to expand Israeli commercial planes’ access to Saudi airspace.
Last month Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told a news conference that Israel expects Biden’s visit will bring some small steps toward closer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Biden himself has his administration is working to “deepen and expand” normalization between Israel and Arab nations.
MBS has made it clear he doesn’t view Israel as an enemy, but rather as a “potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together,” according to state media.
Watch out for: Statements from Biden or Saudi Arabia on potential relations with Israel, Israeli overflights or economic cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Human rights and the Yemen war
A senior US official told CNN that the administration needs to “move past” the murder of Jamal Khashoggi “for the sake of achieving peace and stability in the Middle East.”
US sources have told CNN that the President nonetheless plans to raise the Khashoggi murder directly with MBS. On Monday, Sullivan said Biden’s human rights agenda “will be on display” during his trip.
The Biden administration had also been frustrated at the lack of significant progress in the Yemen war and the humanitarian disaster it has caused, but it has been working with Saudi Arabia to extend a ceasefire in the country.
Watch out for: A public mention from Biden of Khashoggi or Saudi Arabia’s human rights record; new efforts or commitments to end the Yemen war.