Oil market will ensure Biden steers clear of calling out Saudi human rights abuses

By Kit Roberts

A Biden administration is unlikely to represent a sea change in the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, an expert has told Redaction Politics.

Despite the likelihood that the incoming president will be more critical of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia than his predecessor, the economic imperative for stability has historically ensured a pragmatic understanding with the Gulf kingdom. 

Nonetheless, Biden’s signals that he may ease pressure on rival Iran may complicate diplomacy, as the Kingdom is unlikely to back such a measure without assurance from its ally.

With his new Secretary of State Antony Blinken rebuking Trump’s cosy relationship with MBS, one may be forgiven for thinking Biden would seek to distance Washington from Riyadh.

But an economic expert has told Redaction Politics, that increasing American oil sales – and the need for global oil supply co-ordination – will be the main driver of the Washington-Riyadh relationship, as opposed to any socio-political qualms.

Ali Reda, a Lebanese political writer, said: “I don’t imagine anything will change. Sure, there might have been a more intimate friendship between Trump and the crown prince in Saudi Arabia. 

“An alliance with Saudi Arabia is now based on the provision of oil to Europe. The much more important geopolitical concern is to co-ordinate the oil supply.”

“This is now going to be a big reason for Saudi Arabia the US to stay together, because the US is becoming increasingly a major oil supplier.

“The sale of oil is going to become more important in maintaining a relationship. Saudi Arabia is going to be more important.”

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was hesitant to congratulate Biden on his victory. He also recently met with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in NEOM, his so-called city of the future, which some have interpreted as a signal to Biden from both leaders that they will not be ignored. 

Despite its ultra-conservative Sunni government and public condemnations, Saudi Arabia has historically been warmer towards the West and Israel than other Arab countries. In recent years young crown prince Mohammed bin Salman captured the world’s attention with outlandish projects, including a city in the desert with robot butlers, as well as permitting some liberal reforms – at least outwardly.

Mr Reda said: “I would dispute the idea that MBS represents some sort of break from the status quo, simply because this miracle of a new, young prince coming and changing the pathway of how this kingdom has developed has certainly not been the case when other kings have been lauded for the same.

“A lot of the changes that have happened under MBS, such as women driving and more liberal policies with regards to women’s presence in public life, have been portented not by MBS himself, but by women and by activists, who have at the same time been attacked by MBS and imprisoned.

“MBS is actually much less of a reformer, and a much more cynical ruler who understands the power that Saudi Arabia has against the West, but has no time, or no sympathy, for anti-western movements, whether they’re in Saudi Arabia or within the rest of the Arab world.”

He noted that several New York Times articles appeared to laud a new Saudi king or prince for their relatively liberal attitude and commitment to reform. The impression is that MBS is not a break with tradition, but part of the same cycle.

The signs have been there for some time. The detention in the Ritz Carlton and confiscation of wealth of dozens of princes by the Saudi government was ostensibly a crackdown on corruption. Testimonies have since come out, published in the Guardian, that some detainees were beaten. 

Several women are currently being imprisoned for their political activism, and some are confirmed  to have been tortured. 

Even when Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, all that emanated from the Trump administration was a brief condemnation, followed by a reiteration of the strong relationship between Washington and Saudi Arabia.

Despite some remarks from Donald Trump and a serious cooling of relations from many of MBS’ friends in the US corporate world, there were no serious diplomatic repercussions against the Kingdom.

The only concession under Biden, however, will be a simmering of tensions with Iran, according to Mr Reda.

“The economic war that the US is launching on Iran cannot go on forever,” he said.

“I imagine that Saudi Arabia even will be interested in establishing some sort of appeasement with Iran quite soon, because their war in Yemen has not gone as well as they expected, it’s much costlier than they imagined. It might be easier to hedge their bets than to continue the armed struggle against them.”

The primacy of the oil market and the economic imperative to maintain market stability, particularly for Saudi Arabia whose economy is more or less entirely dependent on oil, means the countries must collaborate. 

It is likely that a Biden administration will be louder in its condemnation of Saudi human rights abuses – but don’t expect him to seek any meaningful change. 

Featured Image: The White House @Flickr

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