A month out, the spin begins on expectations of Biden’s Saudi Arabia trip

A month out, the spin begins on expectations of Biden’s Saudi Arabia trip

Shafaq News/ Despite the recent emphasis on Washington’s “oil vs. human rights” dilemma, the visit’s greatest impact may wind up falling in the Arab-Israel arena.

Yesterday big news for the Middle East was the announcement of the July 13-16 dates and some details of President Biden’s arguably long overdue trip to the Middle East.

But understated in the coverage was the mounting speculation that the trip could lead to a Saudi-Israel breakthrough, which would radically alter the politics of the Middle East.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect is the way it could enhance the well-established security and developing economic links that remain essentially clandestine.

For most, the main significance of the trip to Israel, the Palestinian West Bank and Saudi Arabia was made clear in today’s Big Read, the main daily analysis piece in the Financial Times. The FT headline, “Oil vs human rights: Biden’s controversial mission to Saudi Arabia,” retold the story that has emerged in the past few months of Washington’s concern with the oil price and Gulf Arab disappointment with the amount of support received from the U.S., particularly in terms of the threat from Iran and its regional proxies.

Unsurprisingly, one of its data points was the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, and the blame still pinned on the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS.

In this respect, the Big Read built on the June 13 FT editorial, “Joe Biden’s u-turn on Saudi Arabia lays bare the West’s energy dilemma,” which outlined the “Faustian pact” of the reliance of Western democracies on oil-rich autocrats as the former turn a blind eye to the “rights abuses” of the latter. It concluded: “In the rush to secure alternative supplies to Russian oil and gas [Western democracies] should avoid replicating the mistakes of the past — and not give the likes of MbS a free ride.” Ouch!

Yet perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the president’s forthcoming trip is the way it could enhance the well-established security and developing economic links that remain essentially clandestine. A lengthy opinion piece in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper on June 14 was titled: “MbS has a price for tightening relations with Israel.”

That price seems to be direct contact with Biden and to be regarded as the kingdom’s leader in terms of political engagement. But the president appears to regard MbS with a degree of loathing because of his style, particularly on human rights, and so has preferred to keep him at arm’s length. Whatever, it is apparent that there will be a working meeting between Biden and MbS.

The sensitivity of the Biden/MbS non-relationship was apparent in the White House briefing on the trip, which noted that the president would “see” MbS, while the Saudi embassy version of the itinerary said he would meet him.

The White House prefers to emphasize that, while in Saudi Arabia, Biden’s principal point of contact will be King Salman, the ailing 86-year-old father of the 37-year-old MbS, and he will attend a summit meeting of the regional Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman) and the leaders of the “plus three”: Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Morocco, which has a peace agreement with Israel, will also likely be there.

There is considerable speculation among some Saudi-watchers that Israel also will come to that meeting, or perhaps a parallel event, so that some leaders, employing a diplomatic sleight of hand, can avoid such direct contact.

But the Biden trip is still a month away and lots can go wrong in that time. King Salman is in uncertain health. After a colonoscopy a few weeks ago (in itself a surprising level of candor), the monarch stayed in hospital for a few days of “rest.” And Iran may take the opportunity to remind its regional neighbors that it regards itself as the principal country in the area. After all, even the United States calls it “the Persian Gulf.”

A new variable emerging this week is who will be the prime minister of Israel by then. Naftali Bennett’s coalition government is hanging by a thread.

Whatever happens, as long as President Biden can take off on Air Force One, the greeting he will receive of “welcome to the Middle East” will have all its usual multiple possible meanings.

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