Bessma Momani is professor in the department of political science at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
American President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia this past weekend was bad theatre. At best it gave the impression of him addressing American consumers’ woes and at worst reaffirmed every skeptic’s view of hypocritical U.S. foreign policy. Make no mistake – this trip would not have happened were it not for Mr. Biden’s dwindling approval ratings at home, attributed in part to rising inflation and growing fears of a recession. Both economic woes are tied to high energy costs caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Biden administration officials provided a laundry list of reasons for the President’s trip, from the long-time favourite of “promoting peace in the Middle East” to getting the Saudis to increase oil production to ease prices on American consumers. But geopolitical and oil market experts had rightly assessed that nothing substantive would come from this trip when it came to either issue. Despite Israeli-Saudi commercial, defence and intelligence ties being at an all-time high, the frail and elderly King Salman was not expected to sign a formal peace treaty with the Israelis. He will instead leave this to his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), to ink when he almost certainly becomes king.
On oil, Saudi Arabia is already pumping crude at record levels and has very little spare capacity for export. Saudi Arabia’s scorching summer heat also means it has high energy needs of its own to power its air conditioners. Hence while Saudi officials paid lip service to providing the world with a stable supply of crude oil, few expected any substantive change to its output levels. Unsurprisingly, oil prices have not decreased since Mr. Biden’s Saudi trip.
Yet, this trip’s futility highlights a recurrent issue in U.S. foreign policy. It was only a few short years ago that Mr. Biden, then on the presidential campaign trail, said he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for its involvement in the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi democracy activist, Jamal Khashoggi. There has been little change in U.S. foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia during Mr. Biden’s time as President, but at minimum the soon-to-be ruler of the oil-rich kingdom was seen as persona non grata in international forums. At G20 meetings, most Western leaders went to great lengths to avoid being pictured with the ostracized monarch.
Of course, leaders of China and Russia have been quite happy to be seen with MBS. They have continued to make lucrative deals with the world’s largest oil exporter and weapons importer. For much of the world, business and realpolitik sadly eclipses any notion of a human rights-based foreign policy. While many may have scoffed at Donald Trump’s transactional foreign policy during his time in the presidential office, it can at least be said that he was transparent about courting Saudi Arabia for its money alone. He boasted about having encouraged them to buy more U.S. arms and to allow further American investment in the Kingdom.
Mr. Biden claimed U.S. foreign policy would change from the Trump era. Yet there was Mr. Biden this weekend giving MBS a fist-bump and proceeding to sit across the table from the man who, for allegedly ordering the dismemberment of Mr. Khashoggi’s body, was dubbed Mr. Bone Saw. Saudi media reported that MBS used the meeting with Mr. Biden to point out the U.S.’s own human rights failures, from the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison abuses when the U.S. occupied Iraq to the most recent whitewashing of the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
There are consequences to this U.S. hypocrisy. When the West asked for support in condemning Russia for its brutal war and occupation of Ukraine, it was no wonder that so many long-time U.S. allies declined to support a UN resolution condemning Russia. Across the world, states have rebuffed the U.S. and the West, instead choosing to continue to do business with Vladimir Putin’s regime despite the horrors it inflicts on Ukraine. They have rejected the West’s normative framing of the war on Ukraine as one of Western values of democracy versus autocracy.
After all, it only took Mr. Biden three years for an about-face on an autocratic Saudi Arabia. How long will it be before the West capitulates and imports Russian oil and grain, or calls the occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea and the Donbas “facts on the ground.” The consequences of Mr. Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia is an affirmation of what has long been skeptics’ view of U.S. foreign policy: self-serving and hypocritical.
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