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Why is US President Joe Biden visiting Saudi Arabia?

The President met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, claiming that he wanted to promote “important American interests” in the region.

Biden holds controversial meetings with Saudi leader

President Joe Biden arrived in Saudi Arabia on Friday to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a diplomatic move that drew criticism from many of his own supporters.

During the campaign for the 2020 presidential election, Biden repeatedly outlined his opposition to the authoritarian regime in the Middle Eastern country, even promising to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the global stage.

Biden has attributed blame for the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the Crown Prince, but agreed to meet with the nation’s de facto ruler in Jeddah. He greeted the Prince, nicknamed MBS, with a fist bump before holding a series of meetings. So what has prompted Biden’s shift in attitudes towards Saudi Arabia?

Biden pens Washington Post op-ed to explain motives

There was clearly an awareness from the President and his team that the trip to Saudi Arabia would be controversial and he sought to set out his reasons in an op-ed in the Washington Post the week before. He spoke about the economic and trading necessities, as well as trying to point to a change in the country’s governance.

Biden promised to advance “important American interests” during his trip, writing:

A more secure and integrated Middle East benefits Americans in many ways. Its waterways are essential to global trade and the supply chains we rely on. Its energy resources are vital for mitigating the impact on global supplies of Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

He made reference to his administration’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and said that face-to-face meetings would be a central part of his plan to “pursue diplomacy intensely.”

“The Middle East I’ll be visiting is more stable and secure than the one my administration inherited 18 months ago,” he wrote.

Economic factors underpin Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia

However for all Biden’s talk of furthering democracy and engaging in dialogue to promote American ideals, the timing of his visit points to another purpose. The United States has been struggling with high inflation for much of 2022, caused in part by the economic sanctions imposed on Russian-produced crude oil and the resultant high price of gasoline.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest crude oil exporter and has huge reserves of the natural resource that could be used to boost the supply and ease pricing pressures for Americans. Up until 2016 the US was regularly importing well over one million barrels of Saudi Arabian crude oil every day. However in the past year that figure has rarely exceed half a million barrels.

Biden may also be considering the consequence of ignoring a country with an annual gross domestic product of $833 billion. Saudi Arabia is seeking to transition its economy into a major commercial centre in the Middle East and could provide a lucrative new market for American companies.

The relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia appears likely to become increasingly important in the coming years, but Biden will have to balance the economic upside with the political blowback that it may garner.


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