What do Saudis want from Biden’s visit?
So the wheels are finally in motion! After nearly a year and a half when the Saudi-US relationship reached what could be described as rock bottom, Joe Biden — who in the heat of his election campaign pledged to turn the Kingdom into a “pariah” — is making a state visit in response to an invitation from King Salman. The US president will also meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other high-profile officials during his two-day stay.
World leaders talking, even if it is about their differences, is obviously better than not talking — particularly against a background of nearly 80 years of history and a multilayered and fruitful partnership, and with mutual regional goals to be achieved. In addition, just as triple GCC-Arab-Islamic summits were organized for the visit of his predecessor Donald Trump in 2017, Biden will benefit from the fact that the Kingdom can — at the snap of a finger — call a summit of the GCC plus Iraq, Jordan and Egypt to coincide with his trip; just a sample of the trust and far-reaching influence that the Kingdom, at the beating heart of the Arab and Muslim worlds, enjoys among its neighbors.
Talking could be benefitial for other shared interests: they could include consultations on achieving a fair and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the whole region. If you don’t want to take my word for it, here is what Israeli Minister for Regional Cooperation Esawi Frej told this newspaper only two weeks ago: “The Saudi leadership would be central to any solution in the future, and King Salman and the crown prince I believe will play a central role in any renewed peace process,” he told my colleague Katie Jensen on our weekly talk show, Frankly Speaking. “We all need Saudi Arabia,” he said.
The White House may insist that the president’s visit goes beyond talking just about oil, and no doubt it will — but it remains perplexing that, at a time when energy prices are at an all-time high in the US and beyond, it has taken this long for a US president to visit an ally who happens to have the most influential say in global oil markets.
Meanwhile the question on everyone’s mind is: “What do the Saudis want from this visit?”
Energy aside, we are told that other significant issues will be on the agenda. They range from future cooperation on regional stability, to global food security, to climate change, to mutual investment opportunities, and even space exploration.
Energy aside, other topics will include future cooperation on regional stability, to global food security, to climate change, to mutual investment opportunities, and even space exploration.
Faisal J. Abbas
Government officials are better placed than I am to comment on the strategic interests and massive potential of this relationship. However, I would like to speak for myself as an observer, and for the many other Saudis who grew up believing in many American values but saw the US abandon them in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently here in the Kingdom.
One thing the Israelis do very well is allow actions to speak louder than words. Whenever a high-level delegation visits, they are taken to shelters in the south to see how civilians are affected by Hamas terrorist attacks. What a welcome example of public diplomacy it would be if, while in Saudi Arabia, the US president were to visit Abha airport or the Aramco oil facility in Jeddah — both targets of attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. That would show the world that his administration condemns terrorism equally, no matter the race or religion of the victims, and that the Saudi-US relationship is, as the White House said last week, genuinely “multifaceted.”
Three things, although obvious to some of us, are worth noting here. First, the Houthis’ official slogan is “Death to America,” and they have previously attacked both the US Navy and the American embassy in Aden; second, they are backed by a regime in Iran that also supports Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq in Iraq, among other terrorist and destabilizing forces in the region; and finally, when these terrorists attack Saudi oil facilities they eventually limit our ability to produce more oil — which means less supply and higher prices.
A visit to those who have suffered from Houthi terror would definitely help to put things in perspective for Biden and his advisers, and be a stark reminder of who are the villains and who are the victims in this war. Washington might also think twice before recalling Patriot missile defense batteries from the Kingdom or removing the terrorist designation of a group that deliberately targets an ally’s civilian population.
What a welcome example of public diplomacy it would be if, while in Saudi Arabia, the US president were to visit Abha airport or the Aramco oil facility in Jeddah — both targets of attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen.
Faisal J. Abbas
The other thing I hope the president has time to do is go out and see the fruits of the ambitious and courageous reforms that were ushered in with Vision 2030. I would love for him to visit a busy commercial district and see how, unlike the situation a few short years ago, women and men can freely mingle, enjoy a meal or watch some of the world’s best entertainment.
I would love for him to meet young Saudis such as Abdullah Al-Ghamdi and Dana Al-Aithan, just two of the Saudi students who won awards last month at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta, Georgia — the largest event of its kind in the world, at which students from over 80 countries showcase innovation in scientific research. They are living proof of what our schools under reformed curriculums (and without the trauma of gun violence as is the case in the US) can produce.
There will be more to say on this topic in my next column. For now, I suppose the bottom line for me as a Saudi is to see a US administration that finally recognizes my country not as a massive petrol station, but as the historical, cultural, economically successful, young, vibrant and educated powerhouse that it is.
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News