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Will Biden double down on the reckless strategy of appeasing MBS?

December 23, 2022 at 5:50 pm

US President Joe Biden (L) being welcomed by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) at Alsalam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15, 2022 [Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency]

President Joe Biden administration’s response to a question by judge John Bates on whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – known as MBS – should be treated as a head of state or government, and thereby entitled to sovereign immunity was hardly surprising. It announced on 17 November that based on MBS’s promotion on 27 September – by his father King Salman – to become prime minister, then he should be granted immunity in a US civil lawsuit brought against him by Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and DAWN, a pro-democracy group, accusing MBS  of conspiring with premeditation to murder Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Although Biden’s Administration sought to defend its highly contentious decision, claiming that it was based on “a well-established principal of international law”, but in reality, it demonstrated the shocking extent to which Biden was willing to collude with a brutal tyrant in a ploy designed to secure him immunity by manipulating the US legal system and ultimately making a mockery of this establishment. Biden is fully aware that historically and constitutionally the King in Saudi Arabia has always served as the Prime Minister. And given that MBS has in effect been calling the shots since his father appointed him heir to the throne in 2017, it remains unclear what his new role would entail.

Even though judge Bates agreed that MBS’ sudden promotion was “suspect” and despite “credible allegations” of his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, however he emphasised on 6 December that Biden’s decision to grant MBS immunity left him with no option but to dismiss the case.

On 23 September – just days before MBS’ promotion – Biden dispatched both Brett McGurk, Middle East coordinator, and Amos Hochstein, senior energy advisor to Jeddah, in a desperate attempt to leverage the immunity issue to push MBS to ramp up oil production, but MBS was confident he could hold the US to ransom by weaponising his main winning cards: Firstly being the top oil producer in OPEC and OPEC+, secondly strengthening his increasingly growing alliances with both Russia and China and thirdly capitalising on his pivotal role in enticing Arab leaders to normalise relationships with Israel.

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It is no secret that MBS threw his wholehearted support behind ex-president Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. And while all Saudi monarchs strived to gain US endorsement, they also sought to safeguard their domestic support through sharing power and wealth with the highly influential wings of the royal family, financing the incredibly powerful extremist Wahabi Salafi religious establishment and projecting themselves as guardians of Sunni Islam. MBS by stark contrast relied exclusively on Trump’s unwavering support. As such, Biden’s 2020 election victory was a devastating blow to MBS, which was compounded by Biden’s campaign pledges to turn the Saudi regime into a pariah and to hold MBS accountable for Khashoggi’s murder as well as putting human rights at the heart of US foreign policy. But while Biden rowed back on most promises, he nevertheless did release an unclassified CIA report underlining that MBS ordered the murder of Khashoggi, and he refused to recognise MBS as his counterpart, insisting on speaking to King Salman. Without doubt Biden’s actions fell woefully short of his vows, thereby wasting a golden opportunity to practice what he preached at a time when MBS was shunned by the royal family, religious establishment, democracy advocates and furthermore the futile war he has waged against Yemen was turning into a self-inflicted nightmare. In essence Biden was spoilt for choice on how to terminate MBS’ reign of terror but lacked the political will.

2 years after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder MBS has nothing to be worried about – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The turning point, however, materialised when the war in Ukraine erupted on 24 February. Faced with soaring energy prices and surging inflation, Biden travelled to Saudi Arabia in July, embarrassingly fest-bumping MBS and hoping that by formally recognising him as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler he could persuade him to ratchet up oil production, unsurprisingly MBS declined. And far from succumbing to US pressure, on 5 October, MBS aggressively pushed reluctant OPEC+ members to cut oil production by two million barrels a day. This move triggered an uproar in the US, prompting Biden to warn Riyadh of “consequences” and Democrats in congress accusing MBS of conspiring with Russia against US interests. With the oil reduction taking effect in November just before the crucial US Midterm elections, it was doubtless that MBS’ overarching aim was to accentuate the damage to the Democrat’s prospect of maintaining their majority in Congress, thus scuppering Biden’s plans to run again for re-election while also preparing the ground for the Republicans and Trump to make a comeback in 2024.

In the eyes of MBS the chief reason that enabled him to get away from trial for the murder of Khashoggi and also brazenly meddling in US elections has been Biden’s relentless focus on the war in Ukraine. On that basis MBS has increasingly shifted his emphasis to making sure the war drags on by enabling Russia to finance its war effort, considering it as an integral part of his survival strategy. With MBS undeniably on the front foot, he did not want to show any signs of dithering, hence came OPEC+ decision on 4 December to stick to the same production level.

But with Biden portraying the war in Ukraine as a make-or-break confrontation between democracy and autocracy. Against this backdrop, MBS’ concerted efforts to bully Biden into making humiliating concessions that amount to trampling on US values – of democracy and human rights – as the US struggles to stabilise oil prices in order to shore up its faltering economy while also engaging in a decisive battle against its arch foe Russia, would undoubtedly be perceived by the US as an unforgivable stab in the back by a supposedly longstanding strategic partner. consequently, this should raise grave doubts about the viability of the central justifications – touted by western politician who have been on Riyadh’s payroll – underpinning such a feckless alliance with the tyrannical dictatorship in Riyadh: Firstly, ensuring a secure and reliable source of cheap oil. Secondly, foiling Russian and Chinese attempts to forge strategic alliances, sell arms and attract billions of dollars in investment instead of the West. Thirdly, curbing Iranian influence, which is the same excuse used in justifying backing Saddam’s brutal regime. Fourthly, fighting Daesh and Al-Qaeda terrorists, which Biden blamed Riyadh for financing.

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China’s President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh on 7 December to bolster ties at a time when the relationship with the US has hit rock bottom. The trip has seriously alarmed Washington which perceived it as a menacing move by MBS to expand Chinese influence at the expense of the US, in defiance of Biden’s vow not to yield influence on China.

Despite Biden’s strenuous attempts to revive the crumbling alliance by appeasing MBS, yet whenever Biden caved in, MBS has been emboldened, responding with a kick in Biden’s teeth while simultaneously intensifying his ferocious campaign of mind-numbing human rights violations internally. All of this proves beyond doubt that the strategic alliance with MBS has neither stabilised oil prices nor thwarted China’s or Russia’s attempts to forge strategic alliance with Riyadh, thus rendering such an alliance untenable. It is high time for Biden to recognise that doubling down on his reckless strategy of appeasing MBS, despite its screeching failure, is not merely weakening the US by calling into question its commitment to democracy and human rights but also posing a serious threat to its national security as MBS’ interference in midterm election was a warning shot signalling that he is prepared to take the fight to the USA if his long term ambition of becoming king comes into jeopardy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.