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Biden’s Reversal on Gulf States Is the Wrong Kind of Realpolitik

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After several months of will-he-won’t-he speculation, the White House confirmed that President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East next month will include a stop in Saudi Arabia. There, he will meet with Mohammed bin Salman, ending the crown prince’s diplomatic isolation over his involvement in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The decision is a staggering about-face from Biden, who during his presidential campaign vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state. 

This isn’t the only apparent change in the Biden administration’s approach toward the Gulf. There are widespread reports that it is on the verge of signing a substantive new security pact with the United Arab Emirates. The deal is rumored to include regional economic and security cooperation, as well as the potential for a concrete U.S. security guarantee to Abu Dhabi.

All this has met with a wave of praise in Washington, with many of those who normally argue that realpolitik is immoral suddenly discovering the merits of realism when it comes to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, declared that “a pure, values-centered approach to Saudi Arabia … is unsustainable.” Andrew Exum, a defense official in President Barack Obama’s administration, lauded the president for “sacrificing his values today in the interests of something we haven’t seen much of in the past two decades: realism.”  

On closer inspection, however, the notion that Biden’s proposed pivot to the Gulf is a realist triumph quickly falls apart.

Saudi Arabia, of course, occupies a unique position in the global economy thanks to oil production, and the US cannot and should not cut off all ties with Riyadh. Until now, the Biden administration has walked a careful line, maintaining active diplomatic connections while publicly criticizing the crown prince, known as MBS.

With a major policy shift, it’s not merely that the administration would be embracing MBS and his human rights abuses, appalling though they are. The bigger problem is that it would do little  to support US interests, while potentially obligating Washington to a host of new commitments in the region.

The most obvious benefit is the potential for the Saudis to pump more oil into world markets, helping to relieve the economic crunch and high gas prices that have followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The administration has also suggested that Biden’s trip will further cement the Abraham Accords, perhaps leading to normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and ensuring that regional states form a more effective front against Iran.

But both changes were already underway without U.S. involvement. The most recent production increases — agreed to by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on June 2 — merely sped up existing plans, and is projected to add only around 200,000 barrels a day to the market (in February this year, the Saudis alone produced almost 12 million barrels daily). Many analysts are doubtful that further major increases are possible; OPEC is already undershooting its production targets for 2022.

As for cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States, it has improved in recent years in part because of America’s pullback from the region, not despite it. And given the collapse of Israel’s coalition government, it’s hardly a time to be staking out long-term policy with the Israelis.

The potential costs of Biden’s changed approach to the region are high. The US would be renewing its commitments to Middle Eastern states in a more concrete form, risking entanglement and getting dragged into a future regional war. At a time when America is facing increasing demands on its resources in Europe and Asia, a decision to tie the hands of future US leaders in this way is frankly perplexing.

This move is also politically dangerous for Biden. President Donald Trump’s years were replete with stories of illicit and secretive connections between the president’s associates and the Gulf states, from Jared Kushner’s financial ties to Saudi Arabia to the involvement of the UAE in illegitimate lobbying efforts. Biden’s move to rehabilitate the Saudi crown prince or offer security guarantees to the UAE are already receiving substantial pushback in Congress, and are likely to be unpopular with his Democratic base.

But perhaps the biggest problem with this approach is that the growing divisions between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US were never solely about human rights. Instead, they reflected natural shifts in global oil markets. These states have growing ties with China — now among the biggest consumers of Gulf oil — and with Russia, their partner in the OPEC+ arrangement.

These shared economic interests are driving geopolitical bonds. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both abstained on UN votes related to the war in Ukraine, and the Saudis hosted Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in March, just weeks after the invasion. The Saudi energy minister this month described the Saudi-Russian relationship “as warm as the weather in Riyadh.”

Biden’s policy reversal no doubt stems from a desire to be seen to be doing something about domestic gas prices. Yet this approach would do little to help at the pump, while incurring substantial strategic costs. There are other potential solutions.

For instance, the White House could reassure oil and gas companies about U.S. policy on decarbonization, a potential windfall tax and other proposed policies that made oil companies wary to invest in new production. It  could suspend the protectionist restrictions on shipping in the Jones Act, reducing the cost of energy transport and increasing flexibility for producers and refiners. And it could consider softening sanctions on Venezuela, which could help to ease pressure on markets over the longer term.

Finally, resolving the standoff over re-entering the Iran nuclear deal, leading to lifting of sanctions against the Tehran government, would drop as much as a million barrels of oil a day onto world markets, with the prospect for more as Iranian production ramps back up.

The central obstacle to reviving the nuclear pact is Biden’s refusal to remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list. Doing so would be unpopular on Capitol Hill but would have little practical effect on the guard corps’ sinister activities. Reviving the nuclear deal would also bring foreign-policy benefits. Most notably, preventing a potential war between Iran and America’s Middle Eastern partners, and a potential regional nuclear arms race.

Ultimately, a policy of increased US support for the Gulf states is less savvy realpolitik and more a desperate gamble to improve oil prices. Disregarding human rights abuses is in some ways the least of the problems with this approach; it is politically dangerous and risks dragging the US back into Middle Eastern wars.

Biden can still embrace some of the viable alternatives to lower gas prices. Consumers — and future U.S. leaders — will thank him.

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

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. She is author of the upcoming “Oil, the State, and War: The Foreign Policies of Petrostates.”

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