Biden, the Saudis, and Arms and Human Rights
by Mitchell Bard
Headlines hailed the participation of countries from around the world in a climate summit aimed at achieving international consensus on steps to “save the planet” with President Joe Biden leading the charge. One of the essential elements the president has stressed is the need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and yet he has been begging Saudi Arabia to increase fossil fuel production.
Not really, if you know the history of US-Saudi relations.
Recall that since the presidential campaign, Biden has tried to position himself as a human rights president. Biden seemed determined to make an example of the Saudis and downgrade our decades-long relationship with the kingdom and call out Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) because of his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But like other presidents, Biden faced the choice of acting on principle or on national and personal interest — and, like his predecessors, wasted no time largely abandoning principle.
Cutting fossil fuel use is secondary to Biden’s political survival. He fears that as energy prices rise, the economy will tank, and with it the Democrats’ hope for retaining political power.
Conservatives have lambasted Biden policies that have hamstrung the domestic oil industry after the United States had become the largest oil producer in the world, and was less affected by the machinations of OPEC. The members of OPEC have taken advantage of the situation by reducing oil supply to drive up energy prices. Rather than reverse policies that would anger his base, the president has taken the tried-and-true path of begging the Saudis for help and offering them weapons in exchange.
Is it a pure coincidence that the administration offered Saudi Arabia 280 air-to-air missiles valued at up to $650 million earlier this month?
The United States has been playing this arms-for-oil game for decades. We have ignored the Saudis’ human rights abuses, support for radical Islam, and actions that undermine American interests in exchange for lower oil prices. The Saudis depend on America’s security umbrella to keep their royal heads on their royal shoulders but still buy weapons that can’t protect the kingdom (see the Yemen war), but allow them to feel more secure and boast to their neighbors and subjects that they have the latest and greatest technology.
Arms sales also help US leaders politically. Contractors and subcontractors based in states across the country benefit from producing more weapons. The Arab lobby, which includes Saudi officials and their lobbyists, in addition to defense industry leaders and lobbyists, legitimately argue that jobs are created to bolster the local and national economy, and thereby help incumbents.
Is it any wonder that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump agreed to Saudi arms packages worth $100 billion and that Congress was unwilling to oppose them?
The administration insists it is concerned with human rights and, specifically the Khashoggi case. That is why officials reportedly speak only to King Salman and snub MBS. Those officials, and everyone else, knows, however, that MBS is in charge — so it should not be surprising that the Saudis have not satisfied Biden’s request to pump more oil.
There are at least three reasons. One is that the Saudis under MBS do not feel inclined to help a president who has gone out of his way to insult them and pointedly downgraded relations. The second is that Biden’s much-discussed shift toward Asia, the Afghanistan debacle, and desperate pursuit of a return to the nuclear agreement with Iran has made all of America’s allies in the region question the US commitment to their security. Third, the Saudi economy isn’t what it used to be and even as MBS seeks to shift it away from a reliance on oil revenue, the Saudis need money now to pay for all the services their subjects have come to expect, and that requires higher oil prices.
For better or worse, so long as we lack clean energy alternatives and strangle our domestic oil industry, we will need the Saudis.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and author/editor of 22 books, including The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East.