Biden is ripping up his plan to ostracize Saudi Arabia as the US desperately seeks a way out of its oil crisis

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  • Early in his presidency, Biden shunned Saudi Arabia and sidelined its crown prince over human rights.

  • Biden is now preparing to meet the prince this summer as the US scrambles to solve its gas crisis.

  • Experts say Biden's U-turn shows he's willing to put US interests before personal ideology.

Nearly three years after promising to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah," President Joe Biden is set to extend an olive branch to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following months of reproach.

The White House confirmed Monday that Biden will visit the oil-rich nation this summer, the culmination of an 18-month rollercoaster that started with Biden ostracizing Crown Prince Mohammed, commonly known as MBS, and ends with his administration trying to win back MBS' affections as gas prices soar due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Attempts by US officials to convince the Saudis to pump more oil have been unsuccessful so far, with MBS reportedly ignoring Biden's phone calls about the issue.

In a direct showing of how much the US wants Saudi Arabia's help, Biden may personally ask MBS to up oil production at a meeting between the two, Axios reported.

The Biden White House has long kept the kingdom at arm's length, refusing to meet with MBS and effectively demoting him by saying that his ailing father, Salman, is Biden's opposite number. The US also sanctioned several dozen Saudi officials following a declassified intelligence report into the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA concluded was likely ordered by MBS.

A visit to Saudi Arabia signals that, for Biden, it is no longer tenable for the US to estrange a partner over ideology, when more pressing matters like oil threaten US stability, experts told Insider.

"Do you hold a relationship hostage to human-rights concerns or can you move forward while not abandoning your moral high ground? In his mind, Biden can move forward," Adam Ereli, a former US ambassador to Bahrain, told Insider.

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - APRIL 28 (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY â MANDATORY CREDIT - "SAUDI ROYAL COUNCIL / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman gives an interview to the official TV channel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on April 28, 2021. (Photo by Saudi Royal Council/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on April 28, 2021.Saudi Royal Council via Getty Images

'If MBS wants back in from the cold, then he should pay for it'

Amid criticism from lawmakers and activists, Biden and the White House have scrambled to frame the meeting as one serving immediate US interests.

Biden said last Friday: "Look, I'm not going to change my view on human rights. But as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can."

Ereli said: "Biden has made it clear that he's doing this holding his nose."

Experts, lawmakers, and analysts are split over what Biden should do and what it means for his presidency.

A popular argument is that Biden must welcome MBS back from the cold so the US can try and benefit from the country's oil, now that the Ukraine war has disrupted global flow. In return, they say, the US could give Saudi Arabia the security guarantees it desires, as has been the traditional quid pro quo in the US-Gulf relationship that goes back over 50 years.

Biden speaks to reporters in the White House Oval Office on May 9, 2022.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But this type of relationship with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors — oil for security — is outdated, according to some experts.

"It's become extremely transactional: 'You do this, I do that,'" Bernard Haykel, a Saudi expert at Princeton University, told Insider.

"That is not a way to manage an importantly strategic alliance. It's not a healthy way to manage the relationship."

Iyad el-Baghdadi, an analyst and activist targeted by Saudi authorities, agreed: "This relationship cannot and will not go back to how it was five or 10 years ago. The world has moved on," he said. "It was about oil and it was about terrorism and Israel and now it's really about something else. You just have to roll with the reality here. This is not a friendship based on shared values, it's about the economy."

'This alliance is unsustainable'

The other camp of experts and activists believes that now is the time for Biden to cast aside Saudi Arabia as a US partner for good.

Rep. Adam Schiff, for one, said on Sunday that MBS was a "butcher" who should be "shunned" by Biden.

Those like Schiff argue the historic oil-for-security dynamic is no longer relevant and that the two nations don't share common values, like democracy and human rights.

"There's no coincidence of values whatsoever, despite the impressive reforms that MBS has accomplished," Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Insider.

The Saudis need to bring material commitments to the table if they want the US back on side, Miller said: "If you want a reconciliation, fine, but it's got to be based on deliverables. If MBS wants back in from the cold then he should pay for it, because the onus is not on us."

"We need their oil and they expect us to support their security needs and requirements."

In a sign that the US is already considering rehashing its military commitment to protecting the Gulf, Axios reported last week that the US was in discussions with Saudi Arabia's closest regional ally, the United Arab Emirates, about a strategic agreement with security guarantees.

Photos of King Salman Mikhail Metzel and Mohammed bin Salman in front of Saudi Arabia flag 2x1
Images of Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed.Tass/AFP/Getty Images; Rachel Mendelson/Insider

Winning back the crown prince

Biden's task of winning back MBS and accessing Saudi oil is no easy one, as his past criticism of MBS has riled the crown prince.

To salvage the relationship, Biden is going to have to treat MBS as an equal, experts said.

"The number one thing they want is recognition that MBS is the boss, and so far they haven't gotten it," Ereli said of the Saudi side. "You have to deal with the people that are running the state: MBS. It's pretty clear."

In an interview with The Atlantic published this March, MBS suggested he was waiting for just that. "It's up to him to think about the interests of America," he said, when asked about Biden sidelining him. "Go for it."

"We don't have the right to lecture you in America," the prince said. "The same goes the other way."

On this point, Heykel said that a major issue with the US-Saudi relationship is that it had become too highly personalized and focused on individuals.

"MBS, Biden, Trump, Jared Kushner," he said, referring to the former president and his son-in-law, who was known to be friends with MBS. "It should be much more based on structural and institutional relations."

donald trump MBS
Crown Prince Mohammed (left) and then-President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on March 20, 2018.Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

Even if Biden wins over MBS, there may be to much bad blood between the US and Saudi Arabia over the years for it to succeed, Karen Elliott House, the author of "On Saudi Arabia," told Insider.

"I don't see the Saudis trusting us to have a stable long-term relationship. Even if Biden is gone, the next president may change everything. You can't build your future on a partnership where the president likes you for four years and doesn't the next," she said.

MBS not going any time

Regardless of how Biden chooses to conduct his meeting and define the future Saudi relationship, MBS, 36, is set to rule for decades and sit opposite a long line of future US presidents.

"The problem that is trying to be solved is not one that can be solved in one visit. It requires sustained institutional cooperation that builds trust over time," Ereli said.

"What is clear is that as the world demonstrates its increasing volatility on any number of fronts, what has become undeniable is that one of the world's largest oil producers is a lynchpin that we need in our camp."

Read the original article on Business Insider