For a president who sought to walk away from the Middle East, focus American foreign policy toward its traditional alliances, and end America's oil dependency, Joe Biden's policy of treating the Saudis like a "pariah" never made much sense. His forthcoming visit to the desert kingdom is an acknowledgment of that.
The public has simply had it with the Middle East after watching successive governments fail to transform the region over two decades through hot wars, drone wars, and wars for hearts and minds. College students are too young to remember 9/11. Older Americans remember but now resent the blood and treasure squandered for little to no gain. The war on terrorism is over (or perhaps it's on hold until the next major attack). For better or worse, gone are the days of exporting traditional American values abroad. Americans are more interested in yelling at each other about vaccines, masks, and other facets of the culture war.
Along with redeployments, pivoting from the Middle East meant that America was giving up on trying to engineer regime changes. Yet this was exactly what Biden seemed to want. After the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 at the hands of a Saudi hit squad in Turkey, the president and his party wanted to punish Riyadh. Saudi human rights abuses at home, including the imprisonment of regime detractors, further angered Democrats (and Republicans in smaller numbers). A poorly prosecuted war in Yemen that killed far too many civilians only made things worse. The primary target was the crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, known more commonly as MBS — the country's de facto ruler and the king's designated successor whose ascent, some Democrats reasoned, could theoretically still be derailed before it becomes de jure.
Ironically, even as the crown prince fought off these heavyweight detractors, he pushed his backward country into the 21st century. The dreaded mutawa (religious police) are now nowhere to be seen. Radical clerics are losing influence. Women are driving and can travel without permission from male custodians. In other words, some of the reforms that America tried to encourage over the past two decades are now occurring without intense engagement from Washington, and at a time when Saudi-U.S. relations have been the most strained.
The crown prince, like a cornered boxer, played "rope-a-dope" while his American detractors exhausted themselves. There was no knockout blow. The fight ended when it was overtaken by other events. Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine in February thrust the world into an energy crisis. America, in an effort to calibrate its sanctions against the Kremlin while keeping energy flowing, now needs alignment with the government that sits atop the world's largest proven oil reserves. Saudi Arabia can also sway the oil cartel OPEC to increase production.
Of course, America can produce its own fossil fuels. A few short years ago, this country was virtually energy independent. For purported environmental reasons, however, this president eschews domestic energy production. So long as that is true, Biden needs to rely on the foreign policy formula that has guided the U.S.-Saudi relationship for the better part of a century: a reliable supply of Saudi oil in exchange for American security and diplomatic backing.
In other words, after two years of unforced errors, the president has submitted to the superiority of the status quo. His forthcoming visit to Saudi Arabia next month is an acknowledgment of that fact.
But Biden's visit has an interesting wrinkle. He'll be flying to Saudi Arabia directly from Israel. The itinerary of his trip alone suggests extraordinary diplomatic opportunities, a chance to not merely embrace the success of Sunni-Israel cooperation but build on it.
The Saudis and Israelis have quietly grown closer over the last decade, due in large part to the mutual disdain for American-led nuclear diplomacy with their shared enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. This disdain was a basis for the normalization agreements of 2020 brokered by the Trump administration between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.
Saudi Arabia was rumored to be next in line if Trump won a second term. Remarkably, however, when Biden took office, he disavowed the momentum of his predecessor, despite the significant diplomatic achievements that suddenly appeared possible. Partisan politics was clearly at play. The State Department spokesman for a time would not even utter the words "Abraham Accords."
But there was more to Biden's ambivalence. He understood that America's dangerous diplomacy with the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism contributed significantly to the budding Saudi-Israeli alliance. He was vice president when the wrong-headed nuclear bargaining with Iran began under Barack Obama, and he continues to support a policy of enriching the clerical regime in exchange for fleeting nuclear concessions. This further strained ties with Riyadh, and to a lesser extent Israel.
Recently, however, the landscape has started to shift. The obstinance of Tehran has ground the recent nuclear talks to a halt. The U.S. team, despite embarrassing attempts to appease the regime, has seemingly run out of concessions, while the Iranian team refuses to budge. The White House is slowly adjusting to a new realization, namely that the regime in Iran may not want to join the community of responsible nations, as Obama and Biden naively believed.
Meanwhile, the Saudis and Israelis recently engaged in a diplomatic agreement that signaled mutual recognition. Egypt sought to hand control of two Red Sea islands — Tiran and Sanafir — to Saudi Arabia. However, the islands were subject to the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. In order for Egypt to complete the transfer, Israel was required to bless the deal. It did.
Suddenly, Biden was poised to take Saudi-Israeli normalization to the next level. He simply needed to embrace the policy of normalization that his predecessor had harnessed.
With the announcement of his Middle East trip next month, Biden made his pivot. But now, new complications loom. The Israeli political system is convulsing in the wake of a collapsed governing coalition. Elections are slated for October.
It's unclear whether Biden will seek to advance normalization with a caretaker government. On the one hand, any steps in this direction will unquestionably be respected and implemented by future Israeli governments. On the other hand, major diplomatic initiatives like this are rarely taken with caretaker governments, owing to America's stated policy of staying out of others' electoral politics. A U.S.-brokered agreement would likely provide a boost to the tandem leadership of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid as they fend off a challenge from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Whether Biden waits until the autumn or forges ahead now for a rare foreign policy win remains to be seen. Ironically, it may all hinge on decisions made by the royal court in Riyadh. Regardless of the outcome, the president's forthcoming Middle East visit is a course correction that was long overdue.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer.