Biden’s Big Dilemma: Being Realist or Democrat

In order to tackle soaring energy prices, US President Joe Biden had no choice but to bolster ties with Saudi Arabia.

9 mins read

Saudi Arabia and the United States have had turbulent relations for the last two decades due to regional and global incidents and developments such as 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Despite the tension from time to time, the two states have maintained good relations. For example, 45th US President Donald Trump paid his first foreign visit to Riyadh and shared a close connection with the leadership, particularly with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The current president, Joe Biden, however, has yet to speak with the Crown Prince, who has been considered the de facto leader of the Kingdom. In this context, Biden’s planned visit to Saudi Arabia is significant for both parties.

Even though the visit was criticized by many, including Biden’s own party representatives such as Adam Schiff disagreed, the Biden administration is determined to engage with Saudi Arabia in at least two dimensions: domestic and international. The domestic is about the incoming Congress election, which will take place under economic turmoil due to high inflation and oil price hikes. While domestic considerations are important, Biden targets to balance China and Russia with Saudi Arabia, as the Kingdom and other Gulf states have come too close to these countries in recent years.

Domestic dimension

The mid-term elections on November 8, 2022, are important for the Biden administration as they are already two seats behind the Republicans. With a sinking approval rating (to a poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos, around %54 of the American people are not satisfied with Biden’s policies), Biden has no choice but to fix the economy. According to Burak Küntay, a professor at Beykoz University and an expert on American politics, the economy directly affects the mid-term elections. In this sense, the voters’ priority is the economic situation. It is this reality that changed Biden’s attitude towards the Crown Prince, who was criticized by Biden during his presidential campaign due to his role in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, – a Washington Post author. Since the Ukraine war began, Biden has extended an olive branch to MBS. For the first time since his election, Biden attempted to speak with Mohammad bin Salman. The attempt failed, and the oil price remained high. As a gesture of good faith, Biden has toned down against MBS in the Yemeni operation and welcomed the two-month extension of the ceasefire in Yemen by praising the leadership of Saudi Arabia.

Therefore, Biden chose to recalibrate ties with Saudi Arabia by prioritizing the domestic balance since mid-term elections mean the economy, funds, donations, commercial activities, and lobbies, as it is no secret that Gulf countries are eager to play a critical role in Congress. To ensure the dominance of Democrats in Congress, Biden understood that he must deal with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since these countries previously sided with Republicans during the previous term. As a Democrat president, Biden will make a visit to Saudi Arabia to gain Riyadh’s leverage. In addition to that, it is reported that the Biden administration is considering signing a new deal with the UAE, signaling that the US will give security guarantees to the UAE. Therefore, Biden takes a favorable stance toward  Saudi Arabia and the UAE for securing the power in the Congress.

Foreign dimension

Biden’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia has foreign policy implications as well. Putin’s revisionism and the invasion of Ukraine have shown that the competition between the West and Russia has not ended. Prior to the invasion, the existence of NATO and US-led security architecture was questioned since the role of the US declined in the region. Biden had a chance to reorganize the Western security system by bringing its allies together for bursting Putin’s dreams. In this regard, Biden needed to break down Russia’s economic income, such as oil. Therefore, Biden attempted to convince Saudi Arabia to decrease the oil price, which has failed so far.

Moreover, Biden has prioritized the competition with China in the Asia-Pacific region. In this regard, many reports indicate that the US’s top priority is dealing with China. Since then, Saudi Arabia has intensified its commercial, political, and security ties with Beijing, which has uneased Washington. Therefore, Biden’s softening moves to Saudi Arabia is directly related to China. Biden does not want  Saudi Arabia to lose to China either. Moreover, to deal with Russia and China, the US needs to balance Iran with Saudi Arabia.

Implications for the Gulf states

The US Congressional election in 2022 will affect  US foreign policy in the Middle East. If Republicans gain, it is most likely that the Gulf countries will turn back their assertive foreign policy that was conducted during the Trump administration. Therefore, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Doha have been watching the developments in Washington closely.

The House of Representative investigation into  Jamal Khashoggi’s matters for Saudi Arabia is why Riyadh lobbies the representatives of the House. Because the case of Jamal still poses direct challenges to MB, the House view on this matter remains important. In May, the representative in the House introduced a bill for the third time asking for an end to the US involvement in the Yemen war. To clean up the negative implications of the case, Saudi Arabia pays great attention to the mid-term elections.

To sum up, Biden targets to lower the gasoline prices by negotiating with the crown prince. The increase in oil price is one of the vital problems for the Democrats ahead of the November mid-term elections. To tackle soaring energy prices, Biden had no choice but to bolster ties with Saudi Arabia. It means that Biden prioritizes domestic politics. In this sense, Biden aims to overcome the uneasiness among the US citizens about the inflation that mainly emerged after the Ukraine war. Biden also prioritizes foreign policy. In this regard, he aims to drown Putin in the Ukraine swamp and decrease his power. Similarly, by re-engaging with Saudi Arabia Biden implies that competition with China matters. In this sense, it is clearly seen that Washington does not want to lose Saudi Arabia to China. If Biden meets with the crown prince without MBS promises to end his reckless policies, the kingdom will be advantageous at the bargaining table. Even though some argued that Biden’s plan to meet with the crown prince is not realpolitik, it is obvious that realism won against values again.

Mehmet Rakipoglu

Mehmet Rakipoğlu completed his undergraduate degree in the Department of International Relations, Faculty of Political Sciences at Sakarya University. Rakipoğlu, who has been continuing his PhD in the field of the Middle East Studies at Sakarya University's Middle East Institute since 2017, has been working as a Research Assistant in the International Relations Department of the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences at Batman University from 2019 onwards. He has written many opinion papers, analyses and reports for national and foreign media and think tanks. His research interests include the foreign policy of the Gulf countries, Turkey’s Gulf Policy and political Islam, social movements in the Middle East, the relation between religion and politics, etc.

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