Costs of Cheap Oil: Biden’s Balancing Act

By | Jun 07, 2022
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, US President Joe Biden, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman set against a gray background.

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1. Why Biden postponed his trip to Israel

Everything was set for President Biden’s June visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israeli officials were in Washington just last week, ironing out the final details for the brief presidential trip, which was planned for the third week of June, and an announcement was expected any day.

But then, on Friday, the White House hit the brakes and decided to wait a little. The visit, Israelis were told, will indeed take place, but likely toward the end of July.

In Israel, speculation was rife that changes had to do with local politics, that Biden was reluctant to bet on Naftali Bennett and his shaky coalition. According to this line of thinking, the American president fears wasting his political capital on a leader who might soon be on his way out of the prime minister’s office. Furthermore, there is speculation that Biden fears that visiting at a time of political turbulence in Israel could be seen as an outside attempt to prop up Bennett.

The White House moved to dispel these speculations, making clear that the sole reason for postponing the visit is the administration’s wish to broaden the trip and use it to significantly advance America’s Middle East priorities.

In other words, the White House needs a little more time to finalize details with the Saudis and with other regional partners, in order to make the journey about more than just popping in and out with a sole focus on Israeli-Palestinian issues.

2. Saudi Arabia: From pariah to partner

The key—and this comes as a surprise to no one—is Saudi oil.

The Biden administration has been struggling in recent months with rising prices at the pumps, driven by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which led to international sanctions on Russian oil and to an inevitable global shortage. With inflation at record levels and midterm elections around the corner, voices calling for increasing oil production grew stronger and eventually drove Biden to dispatch officials to Riyadh for talks with the Saudi leadership.

The result: an agreement by major oil-producing countries (OPEC), led by Saudi Arabia, to increase supply and relieve some of the world shortage.

This is potentially good news for American consumers, just in time for the summer travel season, but it puts Biden in a bind. In return for more Saudi oil, he’s now expected to warm up to the Saudi leadership, and specifically to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto leader.

During his presidential campaign, Biden described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state in the wake of the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a leading critic of the royal family. After taking office, Biden was handed a CIA report which concluded that Bin Salman personally ordered the killing of Khashoggi.

When it came to deciding between sticking to his promise to fight a regime which murders journalists, and lowering gas prices, Biden chose the latter. Now, all that remains is to finalize the details and put Saudi Arabia on the schedule of the president’s Middle East tour.

The administration is hoping that a) no one notices Biden’s flip-flop, and b) visiting Riyadh and meeting with bin Salman could yield some kind of deliverables in terms of Israeli-Saudi relations—probably not a full Saudi pledge to join the Abraham Accords by normalizing relations with Israel, but perhaps a couple of symbolic moves that would help frame Biden’s visit as aimed at advancing the cause of peace in the Middle East, not just lowering gas prices for American drivers.

3. Human rights and realpolitik

This won’t be the first time that human rights in the Middle East come in a far second after realpolitik considerations, nor will it be the last. For decades, the U.S. has sided with dictators, anti-democratic leaders and human rights abusers when most consistent with the country’s security, economic or regional interests. And that’s true for pretty much every other country in the world as well.

Israel won’t complain about Biden’s shift from pressuring Saudi Arabia to restoring its status as a valuable Middle East partner. Israelis have long cooperated with the Saudi royal family, primarily on issues regarding the two nation’s shared enemy, Iran. A greater role played by Washington in these relations could only help Israel see more benefits from its under-the-table romance with the Saudis, given that Riyadh would likely be more open to gradually normalizing relations if it is seen as a step toward appeasing the Biden administration.

The only people ruining the great Biden-bin Salman rapprochement seem to be members of the president’s own party. Several Democrats have called on Biden to get tougher on the kingdom, and over the weekend, Representative Adam Schiff said point-blank that Biden should not meet with the Saudi crown prince.

These voices are not likely to change the president’s decision to thaw relations with Saudi Arabia, but they will add to a growing list of grievances that Dems, especially those on the progressive side, have with the president over his foreign policy.

4. Journalists are paying the price

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had written for The Washington Post, was murdered in 2018. Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American reporter for Al Jazeera, was killed last month, allegedly by Israeli soldiers’ gunfire.

In both cases, the Biden administration has taken a tough stance, at least in the public sphere. In the case of Khashoggi, the entire U.S.-Saudi relationship suffered a hit, and in the Abu Akleh case, the Biden administration used unusually strong language demanding an in-depth Israeli investigation into the case and full accountability once it is clear who is responsible for her death. (Israel maintains that the facts are not known and that it is impossible to find out who shot Abu Akleh without Palestinians cooperating in the investigation, but several U.S. news outlets have published their own investigative reports that put the blame clearly on the Israeli side.)

Now, the U.S. seems prepared to forgive the Saudis and to move on. The punishment for ordering the murder of a journalist seems to be no more than a year in the diplomatic doghouse.

Israelis can look at this precedent and reach their own conclusions regarding the price Jerusalem will have to pay if the U.S. determines that IDF soldiers killed Abu Akleh.

5. Another test case, in Sudan

Has America given up on promoting democracy and human rights?

A recent set of actions taken by the Biden administration show that in some places, America still believes it has a role to play.

Take a look at Sudan. This African nation emerged from years of autocracy, embraced a democratic process, signed a normalization agreement with Israel and in return saw the U.S. lift sanctions and provide much-needed aid.

But in recent months, a military coup delivered a painful setback to the democratic process in Sudan, leading the U.S. to threaten the country with new sanctions, caution American businesses dealing with Sudan and eventually suspend an American aid package to Sudan that  was part of the deal offered by the U.S. when leaders in Khartoum agreed to join the Abraham Accords.

What can be learned from the Sudanese case?

That American foreign policy is and always has been about balancing priorities. Human rights, democracy, religious freedom, and freedom of the press are all values America is willing to fight for, but with whom and how far—well, that depends on a whole bunch of other considerations.

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