A few weeks into his presidency, President Joe Biden sent Brett McGurk, his top Mideast advisor, to Saudi Arabia with a personal message for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader and heir apparent to his father King Salman.
In a tent in the ancient city of AlUla, McGurk informed the crown prince that the historically close relationship with Washington was on shaky ground. After the gruesome murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents and the long, bloody Saudi-led war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia had lost the political support of both parties in Congress.
Biden himself, as a candidate, had promised to punish the country and treat the Saudis “like the pariah they are” — and if anything, the pressure to disavow the longtime U.S. ally has only increased since his election.
McGurk laid out what was coming: The United States would soon be releasing a U.S. intelligence assessment fingering the crown prince for ordering Khashoggi’s murder, and sanctions would be imposed against a number of agents implicated in the U.S. intelligence investigation. Biden was also ending American support for offensive operations in Yemen, and the U.S. had a number of human rights concerns to be addressed, specifically the cases of several dual U.S.-Saudi citizens who had been arrested and released from detention but remained unable to leave the country.
With that said, Biden’s message to the crown prince also recognized U.S. and Saudi interests remained interwoven. McGurk relayed that the president hoped the two countries would be able to move forward with a new foundation to take the partnership through the next 80 years.
In response, the Saudi crown prince — referred to in diplomatic circles by his initials, MBS — repeated his insistence that he did not personally order Khashoggi’s killing, but he agreed it should never have happened and was eager to fix the relationship. His grandfather, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, launched the U.S.-Saudi relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943, and he said he hoped to write the next chapter of it and transform it for the future.
The crown prince had a few points of his own. He told McGurk he was working to change his country, but that the pace and scope of the transformation must meet Saudi needs, not America’s. He would work to further peace in the region, but he needed a U.S. commitment to Saudi defense. And there could be no surprises, particularly related to Biden’s stated desire to resume negotiations with Iran over a new nuclear deal. As partners, MBS said the United States and Saudi Arabia should deal with each other with honesty and transparency.
This week, Biden announced a move that observers had long been expecting: An official visit to Saudi Arabia, effectively thawing diplomatic relations between the countries, and acknowledging that treating the powerful petrostate as a “pariah” would be a diplomatic dead end. Interviews with several U.S. and Saudi officials involved in frank and often-tense discussions between the two sides since Biden took office suggest that it’s MBS’ vision, rather than Biden’s that has ended up charting the path forward between the two countries.
Critics pounced on the official announcement Tuesday morning. Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine told CNN the trip was a “really bad idea.” “His [MBS’] blood stain has not been cleansed,” he said. Mindful of the potential political blowback, the White House has noticeably downplayed the prospects of a meeting with the crown prince in its messaging about the visit, focusing instead on its relationship with MBS’ father, King Salman, and a meeting of regional leaders Biden will have while visiting the kingdom, contrary to a statement by the Saudi embassy in Washington which previewed “official talks” between Biden and the crown prince.
About a half a dozen Democratic lawmakers sent the president a letter warning engagement with the kingdom should be aimed at “recalibrating that relationship to serve America’s national interests”— a not-so-subtle reminder of Biden’s early promise to “recalibrate” U.S.-Saudi ties. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who helped draft the letter, said Biden should not visit the kingdom, citing MBS’ role in Khashoggi’s murder.
In a recent letter to Biden, 13 human rights groups warned efforts to repair relations without human rights at the center “are not only a betrayal of your campaign promises, but will likely embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.”
“I’m not going to change my view on human rights,” Biden said earlier this month at a briefing when asked about a possible trip to Saudi Arabia. “But as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
For Biden, there has already been a global “recalibration”— and it has taken the wind out of his campaign promise to overhaul U.S.-Saudi relations. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, senior U.S. officials say the president now views America’s global engagement, and his own role as a world leader, through a different lens than when he first took office, one in which cold hard realism takes precedence over moral considerations. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said recently at an event marking the 100th anniversary of Foreign Affairs magazine, “statecraft often involves making difficult choices.”
“Anyone who has not reconsidered the paradigm by which we look at this region and its importance to our own vital interest is missing the larger picture,” a senior official told POLITICO.
It’s an argument not lost on Representative Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor under President Barack Obama and has been one of the harshest critics of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The United States, he said, has “one overriding goal today that is more important than anything else, and that is beating Putin.”
“For me, this is not about human rights versus national security or oil versus Khashoggi,” Malinowski told POLITICO. “It’s about what is the best way for the United States as a superpower to ensure our client states that depend on our security are on our side in this crucial contest and do their part in ensuring Putin fails.”
Despite Biden’s unforgiving stance as a candidate, he opened his presidency with a standard diplomatic gesture toward Saudi Arabia: Once in office, he called King Salman in what both sides describe as a warm and forward-looking conversation.
Many lawmakers and advocates, though, hoped to hold Biden to the tougher side of his views on the kingdom. They saw it as a necessary response to the grisly death of an American citizen, and a corrective to the strong friendship MBS shared with, and impunity he received from, President Donald Trump. As a result of that relationship, the Democratic foreign policy elite assuming power in Washington harbored a far more negative view toward Saudi Arabia than in the past. That left the business community, eager to get into the Biden administration’s good graces, feeling unable to engage with the kingdom on commercial enterprises.
Biden’s initial policy was to take a tough line toward Saudi Arabia in public, while also trying to maintain a functional diplomatic relationship behind the scenes — in particular pushing the Saudis to end the war in Yemen and playing a constructive role in regional politics, including vis-à-vis Iraq and Israel.
Despite the chilly atmosphere, administration officials acknowledge that the Saudis have largely delivered on Washington’s requests. Since Biden took office, MBS has stepped up efforts to end the war in Yemen, stopped the blockade of Qatar, opened a dialogue with Iran in parallel to Washington’s nuclear negotiations and quietly deepened contacts with Israel. Earlier this year, Saudis took part alongside Israel in U.S.-led maritime exercises in the region. The Biden administration is now trying to broker an agreement between the two countries that allows additional commercial flights traveling to and from Israel to fly through Saudi airspace, and another for the kingdom to assume control of two strategic islands in the Red Sea. At home, the crown prince has sought to modernize the country, including neutralizing religious clerics and giving women more rights.
Saudi leaders felt the Biden team pocketed those efforts at partnership and gave little in return. Saudi officials said praise was delivered quietly behind closed doors, even as the Saudis continued to be hammered in Congress.
MBS told his aides a positive vision was needed to reframe the relationship. He thought Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan mirrored his Vision 2030 strategic plan to transform the Saudi economy. On numerous occasions, he would propose ideas on how the two countries could work together on areas from oil and food security to cyber and space cooperation. Such a partnership, he argued, would create Saudi jobs and increase U.S. global competitiveness.
“We wanted a roadmap for the partnership between both counties for the remainder of this century,” Saudi Ambassador Reema bint Bandar al-Saud told POLITICO in an interview.
Instead, Saudi officials say they continued to get a variety of asks — from helping curb instability in Iraq and aiding Lebanon’s faltering economy, to taking in Afghan refugees to mediating conflict in Sudan and Ethiopia. And then there was the oil: a standing request from the United States for Saudi Arabia to increase production to curb rising gas prices.
Riyadh also balked at what it considered half-measures responding to the threats they faced from Iran and its proxies. Washington de-listed the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen as a terrorist organization and denied Riyadh precision munitions to counter ongoing missile attacks, which the United States considered “offensive weapons.”
“The process of rebuilding a relationship takes time,” a former U.S. intelligence official with knowledge of the ongoing discussions told POLITICO. “The Saudis thought it would take six or seven months. The U.S. didn’t have a time limit. That seemed to be why the frustrations were building up.
By the time National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan made his first trip to Saudi in September, things were beginning to crumble. The meeting didn’t get off to a great start: MBS greeted Sullivan and his team at the Red Sea resort Neom in casual attire, hoping to set a casual tone among friends. The U.S. delegation showed up in formal attire for official talks.
When the subject turned to Khashoggi, MBS grew agitated. Biden had asked him for a number of things, MBS reminded Sullivan, and he had delivered. Now, it was the president’s turn to prove he could be trusted. The crown prince presented a choice: The United States could continue to live in the past, reducing the relationship with Saudi Arabia to a purely transactional one. Or the two countries could work together to tackle the myriad of global security and economic challenges they both faced.
Once again, MBS laid out his vision for cooperation across a number of sectors which, he argued, would transform the U.S. global footprint from one of bases and carriers to one of economic development and innovation. The United States, he insisted, needed a partner like Saudi Arabia. As architect of Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class,” Sullivan was as invested in American domestic renewal as he was in its global leadership. Recognizing opportunities to bolster the United States’ ability to compete on the global stage, he agreed it was important to look forward, even as the two countries worked to resolve outstanding issues on Yemen and human rights.
Within weeks of his visit, a steady stream of Saudi ministers began descending on Washington — from foreign affairs and defense to commerce, investment and environment. Riyadh also saw a revolving door of U.S. delegations. U.S. officials started sending messages to American companies that it was OK to do business in the kingdom, and the Saudi finance minister held a two-day forum in Washington with business leaders on how the country was making regulatory changes to accommodate American and other foreign companies.
But despite the steady progress being made by the two sides at the working level, Biden’s continued refusal to normalize relations with MBS was taking its toll — especially on the Saudi public, which felt disrespected by the perceived personal attacks against the crown prince, who remained wildly popular at home.
“We are civilized nations,” one Saudi official lamented. “This isn’t some Twitter war between Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.”
Ambassador al-Saud was more diplomatic but echoed the sentiment. “We never disparaged a U.S. leader,” she told POLITICO. “We can agree or disagree on policy, but you can’t go personal, or our whole nation stands rank and file, and that is what we did.”
Tensions boiled over once again in February, as gas prices skyrocketed and Russia began amassing troops on the border with Ukraine. Delegations traveling to Riyadh appealing for an increase in oil production were rebuffed. When Biden asked for a call with MBS to discuss the oil crisis, the crown prince referred the president to the ailing king — his stated preferred interlocutor — before he rejected Biden, too. The message from Riyadh: It’s not our problem and we aren’t the bad guy. America caused its own energy crisis by refusing to pump more of its own oil and killing the Keystone XL pipeline project running from Canada to the United States. Therefore, a short-term spike in Saudi production would not solve America’s long-term energy needs. Riyadh stuck with Moscow on agreed-upon production caps as part of its OPEC+ agreement to “protect market stability.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a game-changer. Saudi Arabia ultimately signed onto a UN-General Assembly resolution condemning the war, but was resistant to U.S. pressure to further isolate and punish Putin, with whom MBS enjoyed good relations. The Saudis have viewed Russia’s increased military footprint and influence in the Middle East as a hedge against Washington. And it was Vladimir Putin, when world leaders ignored MBS after Khashoggi’s murder at the G20 meeting, who walked up to the Saudi crown prince and high-fived him.
White House aides feared the standoff with MBS was pushing the decades-long partnership with the kingdom to the brink and could end cooperation with Saudi Arabia for the remainder of Biden’s term — driving the country further into the arms of Russia and China, whose growing ties with the kingdom had become even more concerning to Washington than the Saudi relationship with Moscow. MBS has recently invited President Xi Jinping to visit Riyadh and was reportedly considering pegging some oil sales to the Chinese yuan. Most concerning were the kingdom’s plans to purchase ballistic missiles from Beijing, something the Democratic lawmakers noted in their letter to Biden.
U.S. allies from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to French President Emmanuel Macron — both of whom traveled to Riyadh in recent months — and even Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett were all urging Biden to end the feud with MBS, according to both Saudi and U.S. officials. The fog finally cleared in April after the White House dispatched CIA Director William Burns, a well-respected figure in the kingdom, who met quietly with MBS in the port city of Jeddah and emphasized the importance of maintaining the US-Saudi partnership. The prospect of a Biden visit became more serious and was locked in after a visit to Washington last month by Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister and MBS’ brother.
In an interview with POLITICO, Prince Khalid said Biden’s visit would have a “strong impact on the region and enhance our working relationship.”
“There is a recognition from the U.S. government that Saudi Arabia is an important ally. It’s hard to get big things done in the region, related to security or the global economy, without us,” he told POLITICO. “This relationship is the cornerstone of stability — both in the Middle East and in the global economy. In Saudi Arabia we look forward to defining what this relationship will look like in this century.”
The thaw now appears official. In anticipation of his upcoming trip, Biden took the rare step of praising the kingdom’s “courageous leadership” after Saudi Arabia signed onto to the extension of a UN-brokered truce between Yemen’s warring factions that has led to the most peaceful period in the seven-year-long war.
On the same day, OPEC+ announced an agreement on a larger-than-expected hike in output. In a statement, the White House said, “We recognize the role of Saudi Arabia as the chair of OPEC+ and its largest producer in achieving this consensus,” and U.S. officials tell POLITICO they expect steady increases throughout the year.
“It took a lot of advocacy with the president to get him to do this,” a senior administration official told POLITICO of the upcoming visit. “It’s not in his comfort zone. But the fact the Saudis have stepped up gives him a little cover.”
It would be naive to think oil and immediate U.S. economic pressures aren’t a major factor in Biden’s decision to travel to Saudi Arabia. But both U.S. and Saudi officials say that while in the kingdom, the two sides will also unveil a broader partnership that involves agreements on infrastructure, clean energy, space, economic investment and cyber — with ambitious projects, such as excavating water from the moon to mapping space to developing a 6G network.
Officials won’t say publicly this is about competition with China, but plans to create production hubs across in a number of sectors throughout the Middle East will make the region, and the world, less reliant on Chinese supply chains.
“This is how we can both own the future,” another senior U.S. official told POLITICO.
With Saudi investment and American know-how, the hope is that the projects will encourage foreign direct investment and create jobs that prepare the kingdom for a post-oil economy, just as American companies developed the Saudi oil sector nearly 80 years ago, while strengthening US global competitiveness — one of President Biden’s long-stated foreign policy priorities.
“We know what the U.S. did for Saudi Arabia,” al-Saud told POLITICO. “Your companies helped build our country. If we look at what we did together in the last 80 years, imagine what we can in the next 80.”