Before mating, some birds perform an elaborate love dance leading finally to consummating the act. Something similar is going on between US President Joe Biden and Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS).
Are they friends or foes, or something in-between? Recent developments present a confusing picture. Consider this. During his election campaign, candidate Biden had said he would make MbS a global pariah. This was in reference to the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The CIA’s assessment was that MbS had ordered the killing.
Despite this bravado, the Biden regime has taken no meaningful steps to punish MbS. In fact, it announced last month that Washington would not support prosecution of MbS in a US court over the Khashoggi killing. The reason advanced was that he has sovereign immunity because he is now the ‘prime minister’ of Saudi Arabia! It was clearly intended as a conciliatory gesture toward the Saudi upstart.
At the G20 summit in Bali (November 13-15), however, Biden made it a point to ignore MbS and refused to meet him, even perfunctorily. Why this snub when the American president found time to meet other heads of government? The Biden snub did not cramp MbS’ style. He had already lined up meetings with a number of leaders of Asian countries that are major importers of Saudi oil.
Western media outlets have made much of the fact that Saudi Arabia refused Biden’s request to increase oil production to make up for Russian shortfall caused by cutting off its gas and oil to Europe. Biden even travelled to Saudi Arabia in hopes of ‘persuading’ the Saudis to comply with his demand. He came back empty-handed.
The decision to cut oil production was made at the OPEC+ meeting in October and the Saudis have been at pains to tell anyone willing to listen that the decision has nothing to do with politics. It is based on market conditions.
The Americans refuse to see it that way and have accused MbS of coercing smaller producers to cut oil production to keep the price high. This, the Biden regime alleged, would “increase Russian revenues and blunt the effectiveness of western sanctions” imposed on Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine. Washington demands that the rest of the world comply with its demand to sanction Russia.
American sanctions are applied selectively. Take the case of India. It has greatly increased import of Russian oil at discounted prices and is re-exporting it to other countries making a tidy profit. The Americans have not lifted a finger against Delhi.
So, why single out the Saudis? The difference is that the US treats Saudi Arabia as a colony while India is courted to undermine China. The wily Indians are not likely to fall into Washington’s trap but Saudis must pay the price.
There are other contradictions in US policy. Early last month, the State department spokesperson Ned Price alleged that Iran was planning to attack Saudi Arabia. Riyadh said it had shared intelligence with the US. Then in a move that can only be described as cowboy mentality, the US flew two B-52 bombers over the Middle East in a show of force. Who was it trying to impress?
So, is Biden trying to isolate and punish MbS or protect and cuddle him? There could be a third possibility. Biden simply does not know what’s going on. The octogenarian president is prone to forgetfulness and embarrassing gaffes. Who can blame him? He is in the age bracket where alzheimer’s disease strikes most elderly people.
MbS, however, is moving ahead. He has cultivated close links with Russian president Vladimir Putin and is expected to host Chinese President Xi Jinping later this month. There is speculation that the Saudis would lay out a lavish welcome for the Chinese president. It would even surpass the extravaganza laid out for former US president Donald Trump when he visited Riyadh in May 2017.
In needs pointing out that when Biden arrived in Jeddah last July, he was received at the airport by the governor of Makkah Khalid bin Faisal and the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Reema bint Bandar. There was no red-carpet welcome, no bands or other displays that would reflect the importance of the guest. Biden was treated as dirt.
So, what is MbS trying to convey and whether he runs the risk of losing his position should the Americans decide to get rid of him? The Saudi crown prince is clearly signalling that there are other powers besides the US that he can deal with. It also reflects the changed global environment. The US is no longer top gun.
Further, unlike the US, China does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries nor impose its political will on them. Beijing maintains strictly business relations. Trade and security matters are on the agenda during Xi’s visit. From the Saudi point of view, this is much more appealing.
As for the risk to MbS’ hold on power, he has eliminated or sidelined all potential rivals. There is little the Americans can do on that score. It appears the days of US imperialism and gunboat diplomacy are over.