Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
In 2019, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden made it unmistakably clear he’d had it with Saudi Arabia. Angry over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) alleged role in the murder of Washington Post columnist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi, Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” He added that there’s “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
Unfortunately for Biden and the human rights community, much of the world doesn’t seem to agree.
Since the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, the rehabilitation of MBS has been well underway.
The Biden administration did release a CIA assessment that MBS ordered the murder and the US applied sanctions on a number of Saudi officials. Saudi Arabia’s own trial of several Saudis involved in the murder reinforced the narrative that the plotters were rogue elements not connected to the Crown Prince. And Turkey conducted a trial of 26 Saudi suspects all tried in abstentia.
But paving the way for a MBS visit to Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan approved the transfer of the trial to Saudi Arabia, which effectively closed the case.
On Wednesday, MBS met with Erdogan, one of the biggest critics of Saudi involvement in the Khashoggi murder. Driven by oil interests and a desire to broaden its diplomatic options and reach, Saudi relations with Russia and China (no human rights issues there) are closer than ever.
Next month MBS will take his most important step in from the cold when he hosts a clearly conflicted Biden. It’s evident that much of the international community has clearly decided that, unlike the Lehman Brothers, their relationships with Saudi Arabia are too big to fail.
It’s not as if there was a great deal of resistance to the MBS rehab project. Within a year of Khashoggi’s murder, presidents, prime ministers and business leaders were flocking to Saudi Arabia for the country’s Davos in the Desert investment summit. Several VIPs who had pulled out of the 2018 summit returned the next year, including the heads of HSBC, Blackstone and BlackRock. And in December 2019, Saudi Arabia became president of the G20 with the summit being held there, albeit virtually in November 2020 because of the pandemic.
Saudi Arabia also found very willing partners in Russia and China. At the G20 in Argentina in December 2018, a month after Khashoggi’s murder, Russian President Vladimir Putin tossed MBS a lifeline in a famously photographed high-five at a time when much of the international community was keeping its distance.
Saudi-Russia relations have had their ups and downs, including a price war over oil in 2020.
But as Saudi Arabia’s doubts about the US commitment to its security grew – compounded by worsening relations between MBS and Biden – Russia offered a convenient foil to demonstrate that Riyadh had other options than the US. Putin paid a state visit to Saudi in October 2019. And MBS has reportedly talked several times to Putin since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
And, on at least one occasion, he pointedly refused to accept calls from Biden.
Similarly, China has emerged as another important partner prepared to overlook Saudi human rights abuses and provide another hedge against Saudi dependence on the US. Within a year of the Khashoggi murder, MBS visited China as part of a tour to Asia. By 2021, Saudi Arabia was the largest source of China’s oil imports.
The Crown Prince’s regional tour this past week to Egypt, Jordan and especially Turkey reflects an effort to demonstrate that Saudi Arabia is an important regional player. That was particularly true of MBS meeting with Erdogan who had waged a campaign against Saudi Arabia for the killing of Khashoggi. That meeting, according to Turkish sources, reflected a “new era” in Saudi-Turkish relations and closed the file on Turkey’s efforts to press for answers on Khashoggi’s fate. MBS clearly hopes it sends a message to the US to do the same.
The Turks and Arabs aren’t the only parties who look to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. Israel is concerned that a stalled US-Saudi relationship will hurt their own interests. They are also pressing the Biden administration to mend ties and are hoping that the President’s upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia will also help to improve Israeli-Saudi relationship.
The final piece of the Saudi effort to bring MBS in from the cold is focused on the US. The new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series, which seeks to draw top notch players from the PGA into tournaments that would pay out millions in prize money, is a calculated part of that effort.
But the main event is the US President’s visit next month to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis believe that this visit will be tantamount to turning a page in the US-Saudi relationship and view it as American recognition that Biden’s intemperate comments about MBS were uncalled for – and that Saudi Arabia is too important to ignore.
Saudi commentators are gloating about Biden’s visit. “It is the tanking popularity of the president that brings him to us. It is his legitimacy that he hopes to bolster by meeting with our crown prince,” wrote Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador in the US, in an op-ed published in Arab News.
Pressure has been growing within the Biden administration to mend fences. Driven by the oil crisis as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and higher gas prices, without the Ukrainian crisis Biden would probably not be taking this trip. He was reported to have initially angrily rejected a meeting with MBS responding that the “presidency should stand for something.” And his subsequent responses about the trip seem to suggest he’s genuinely conflicted. “I’m not going to meet with MBS. I’m going to an international meeting, and he’s going to be part of it,” Biden recently stated.
The President will try to get as much as he can out of the meeting with MBS. Likely pressing the Saudis to pump more oil; align closer with Israel; support the West’s effort against Russia on Ukraine; and cooperate with other Gulf states and Israel on containing Iran. And he may succeed in some of it.
Hopefully Biden will press MBS – a repressive authoritarian – on Khashoggi’s murder and other ongoing human rights abuses, including the detentions of several US-Saudi dual nationals. But the Saudi takeaways from the meeting will surely be that oil and influence have prevailed; that the rehab of MBS is nearly complete and that in dodging any accounting or accountability for Khashoggi, the Saudis got away with murder.