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Analysis'It’s entirely fuel prices. The rest is decoration'

Forced to abandon idealistic path, a pragmatic Biden set to meet MBS in Saudi Arabia

After promising to make Riyadh’s rulers into pariahs and slash fossil fuels, POTUS to ask for more oil, re-engage in region; Israel’s leaders make similar about-face on natural gas

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US Vice President Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)
US Vice President Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

Joe Biden truly intended to transform the foundations of US foreign policy.

In the Middle East, long a focus of American attention and assistance, Biden sought to move away from an interests-based approach rooted in transactional relationships with Arab dictators. Instead, Biden touted a foreign policy based on human rights, even if it meant antagonizing countries that had reliably cooperated with US diplomatic and military projects in the region for decades.

What’s more, he wanted to move away from the Middle East altogether, accelerating the pivot to Asia that his former boss, Barack Obama, had advocated.

As part of that transition, Biden saw increased investment in renewable energy as a way to lower dependence on oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. Breaking with Donald Trump, Obama, and their predecessors, Biden did not tout plans to expand domestic oil and gas production, seen as a prerequisite for reducing the leverage Gulf countries hold over American foreign policy.

Biden was clear about his vision well before he entered the Oval Office. On the Democratic debate stage in November 2019, the former vice president stunned observers by announcing his intended approach toward one of America’s most important Middle Eastern allies.

“We [are] going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” said candidate Biden. “There’s very little social redeeming value… in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

It signaled a sea change. Saudi Arabia was the very same country Obama had backed in its war in Yemen and to which the administration had offered over $115 billion in weapons.

Donald Trump, the man Biden was looking to take on in the general election, had been roundly mocked in the US media for his unapologetic commitment to the longstanding US-Saudi alliance.

After the shocking 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul, Trump released a statement unabashedly defending the American embrace of Riyadh. He pointed at the Saudis’ investment in the US economy, their central role in the fight against Iran, and their influence on oil prices.

A screenshot of US President Donald Trump, Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi touching a glowing globe to launch the opening of an anti-extremism center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. (Screenshot)

CNN said Trump’s statement “highlights the brutality of his America First doctrine.” Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan wrote that “a clear and dangerous message has been sent to tyrants around the world: Flash enough money in front of the president of the United States, and you can literally get away with murder.”

Biden, on the other hand, vowed to put human rights and “American values” first.

Shortly after taking office in January 2021, the 46th US president took some steps toward fulfilling his promise. He released to the public an intelligence report that pointed the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (also known as MBS) for directly authorizing Khashoggi’s killing. Biden also scaled back US support for the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen amid revulsion over civilian casualties, and took the Iran-backed Houthis off the US terror list.

At the same time, Biden recognized the limits of how far he could push the Saudis. He conspicuously refrained from sanctioning MBS himself, instead rather anticlimactically imposing visa restrictions on 76 other Saudi officials.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Al Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2019. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

In his first year in office, Biden sought to break with past US regional policies – especially those of Trump – in other important ways as well. He pushed hard to accelerate the US pivot to Asia, ending the US military presence in Afghanistan. Administration officials seemed oddly hostile to expanding the Abraham Accords, even avoiding the term for the first few months. Biden also seemed ready to make significant concessions to Iran to get the nuclear deal locked up, something that deeply worried US partners in Israel and in the Gulf.

Getting rid of fossil fuels

In addition to trying to change America’s relationship with the world’s largest oil exporter, Biden also sought to simultaneously chart a new path on America’s own oil and natural gas production. As a candidate, Biden promised, “We are going to get rid of fossil fuels.” He also pledged that in the future there would be “no ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period.”

The actions Biden took on this campaign pledge were far more comprehensive than the follow-up on his Saudi promises. On his very first day in office, Biden signed an executive order revoking approval for the fourth phase of the Keystone XL Pipeline. He then issued an executive order suspending new oil and gas permits on federal lands and waters, where nearly 25 percent of US oil and gas production comes from.

“The Biden administration views this policy as a key part of its climate agenda and is unlikely to change course,” wrote energy expert Ben Cahill right after Biden took office.

In this Nov. 6, 2015 file photo, TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline facilities are seen in Hardisty, Alberta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

But only months into his own tenure, the sustainability of Biden’s Saudi and energy policies began to come under strain. Biden watched fuel prices rise steadily as the world economy reopened after the COVID-19 shutdown. Rising demand, reduced supply, an especially cold winter in Europe, and a lack of wind caused European prices to rise sharply. Similar dynamics pushed prices up across the globe.

Then Vladimir Putin sent his forces into Ukraine.

Venezuela to the rescue?

Though oil prices were already rising steadily by then, the February 24 invasion caused them to spike. “Strong economic recovery coupled with low investment in oil production were hugely exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” according to Maciej Kolaczkowski of the World Economic Forum. “This sent the oil price to stratospheric levels and this is being passed over to consumers at the pump.”

Russian military vehicles move on a highway in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces near Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

The White House recognized the risks. In the early weeks of the invasion, Biden authorized the release of an unprecedented 180 million barrels of oil from the US strategic oil reserve, in an attempt to bring down prices and spur companies to increase production.

“The bottom line is if we want lower gas prices we need to have more oil supply right now,” he said in late March.

Biden was determined to maintain his climate credentials, and stuck to his guns on his domestic oil and gas policies. But the energy crisis – along with a drop in approval ratings – demanded action, and he was forced to climb down on the “pariahs” in Riyadh.

Biden turned to producers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, even though using their oil is no more environmentally friendly than using American.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, attends a ceremony with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan at Qasr Al Watan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 27, 2019. (Mohamed Al Hammadi/Ministry of Presidential Affairs via AP)

But that effort reportedly ran into a wall. In no mood to assist a White House pressuring them on human rights and refusing to back the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s bin Salman, the de facto ruler, and his Emirati counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, ignored repeated White House requests for phone calls with the president. Throughout the deteriorating energy situation, the Biden administration made overtures to the Saudi-led OPEC oil cartel to increase production. The response it reportedly received was, essentially, “If you need more oil, produce it yourself.”

Senior administration officials even headed south to Venezuela to meet with Nicolas Maduro, the authoritarian leader with whom Washington cut ties in 2019. Though the White House cast the trip as an attempt to wrest Maduro from Putin’s camp, others saw it as part of a Biden effort to enlist new offshore oil sources.

In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, right, shakes hands with Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in their meeting at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, October 22, 2016. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Even some Democrats were openly critical. “I am deeply skeptical of the new talks,” tweeted Florida Representative Val Demings. “We must ensure that Florida families can afford gas, AND ensure that no dictators can profit from this crisis.”

Beyond the geopolitical ramifications, the environmental ones were even more problematic. Producing oil in the US, with its strict regulations, is far less damaging to the environment than doing so using Venezuela’s crumbling infrastructure.

As the war in Ukraine dragged on, with a US ban of Russian oil imports firmly in place, the average US gas price reached $5 for the first time in history in mid-June. Democrats are staring at a potential drubbing in the November midterm election, with the risk of leaving Biden a lame duck for the rest of his term, without having passed flagship legislative initiatives.

Gas prices are shown on March 7, 2022, in Tumwater, Washington, as the cost of gasoline hit the highest price that American motorists have faced since July 2008. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Democrats in tight races have been openly criticizing the president for not doing enough to handle fuel prices and inflation, and meetings between White House officials and Democrats on the Hill have reportedly been tense.

It’s all about energy

Attempting to avert a midterm defeat and a potential legacy as an unpopular one-term president, Biden is shedding the human rights core of his foreign policy and is heading to the kingdom on a July 13-16 trip that begins in Israel.

Not surprisingly, the White House is trying to paper over Biden’s about-face on both the Saudis and fossil fuels by saying he is merely joining a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting that just happens to be taking place in Jeddah, and that the focus of the GCC+3  meeting is going to be a range of issues beyond energy.

“I’m not going to meet with MBS,” Biden told reporters last month. “I’m going to an international meeting and he’s going to be part of it.”

“The commitments from the Saudis don’t relate to anything having to do with energy,” insisted the president.

In a Washington Post op-ed late Saturday, Biden justified the visit as necessary in order to counter Russia and China, and protect regional stability. “When I meet with Saudi leaders on Friday, my aim will be to strengthen a strategic partnership going forward that’s based on mutual interests and responsibilities, while also holding true to fundamental American values.”

US President Joe Biden speaks with members of the press before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, February 17, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

But many experts aren’t buying the White House line.

“It’s entirely fuel prices,” said Moran Zaga, expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “The issues of oil and the price of gasoline stand at the center of this visit and the rest is decoration.”

Atlantic Council senior fellow Ellen Wald agrees. “He says he’s going to this international conference but no one believes it. Everyone thinks he’s going there for energy. The Biden administration is desperate at this point to find a way to bring down prices.”

ILLUSTRATIVE — A gas flame is seen near the Khurais oil facility in an area where operations are being expanded, about 60 miles southeast of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 23, 2008 (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

Prioritizing access to fossil fuels shouldn’t surprise anyone.

“This is in keeping with all of his predecessors, every American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” said Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Joe Biden is returning back to normal.”

The move comes with significant cost for Biden, Riedel warned. “The well laid-out argument that we are fighting against reckless dictators who ignore the will of the people and who engage in mass carnage is going to take a big hit. The difference between Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman is that MBS has already been responsible for the death of tens of thousands of people, most of them children.

“Vladimir Putin may get there, but he’s not there yet, and the other thing that they have in common is that they like to murder journalists.”

There is not much optimism that the meeting will have the effect that Biden hopes.

“The only way to bring down prices now is to end any action against Russia,” said Wald. “And a real statement that we support drilling for oil and natural gas and that we are going to do everything we can to remove the regulatory issues that are making it difficult. [Biden] is still trying to vilify oil and natural gas, and energy companies don’t want to expand in that atmosphere.

“I don’t know how much [Riyadh] will want to give him a political asset around this issue,” she continued. “I think they’ll make life hard for him.”

This is especially true if Biden starts lecturing the Saudis about human rights. The Saudis want to show that they are a strategic partner for the US, not a client state, and will be happy to cut deals based on mutual interest – but not to rescue Biden.

Israel’s natural gas wake-up

It’s not only in the US where idealistic and potentially damaging energy policies fell apart when they began to be tested on the messy international stage.

In November 2021, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett and Energy Minister Karine Elharrar led an Israeli delegation to the United Nations COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. In the leadup to the conference, Bennett and his government became vocal advocates for far-reaching climate goals, adopting the rhetoric of European activists.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) is introduced to Israel’s Energy Minister Karine Elharrar (L) as he meets with Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) on the sidelines of the COP26 Climate Conference at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, Scotland on November 2, 2021. (Alberto Pezzali / POOL / AFP)

Maintaining that spirit, shortly after returning from Glasgow Elharrar announced that she would be rejecting the recommendations of an inter-agency natural gas committee and would not be granting new licenses for natural gas exploration in Israeli waters in 2022.

The reason for the surprise announcement, she said, was to focus on renewable energy: “In the coming year, we will focus on the future, on green energy, on energy saving, and while we’re doing that, we’ll set aside the issue of expanding the development of natural gas.”

Her predecessor, Yuval Steinitz, called the suspension of natural gas licenses “a wretched decision.”

“It was wretched because it sends the message that Israel is not interested in becoming an exporter of gas to the Middle East and Europe,” he told The Times of Israel by phone. “Why can the US export gas to Europe, and why can Norway export gas to Europe, and why can Qatar export gas to Europe, and Israel isn’t interested?”

Minister Yuval Steinitz, center, speaks as he presents the guidelines for regulating the country’s offshore natural gas reserves at a press conference in Jerusalem on June 30, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Steinitz said that the exploration of natural gas in no way prevented progress on renewable energy projects.

“What’s the connection?” he asked. “The fact that American or European ships are drilling for natural gas somehow disturbs putting up solar panels on a chicken coop in the Galilee or a cow barn in the Negev? There is no connection between them.”

The war in Ukraine, and the opportunity created by Europe’s desperate search for a replacement for Russian energy, seems to have woken Elharrar up to the economic and diplomatic importance of Israel’s natural gas.

In June, she signed a memorandum of understanding with Egypt and the European Union according to which Israel would export its natural gas to the EU for the first time.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (back) looks on as EU Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson (L), Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tarek el-Molla (C), and Israeli Minister of Energy Karine Elharrar (R) sign a trilateral natural gas deal at the ministerial meeting of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in Cairo on June 15, 2022. The deal provides for the export of Israeli natural gas, via Egypt, to Europe. (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

“This is a tremendous moment in which little Israel is becoming a significant player in the global energy market,” Elharrar said at the Cairo signing ceremony.

Elharrar’s office declined repeated requests for comment on her new approach on energy and the climate.

Still, her new stance would seem to constitute a return to more traditional pillars of policy — energy security, a concern over fuel costs, ties with regional powers — similar to the direction Biden is now taking.

Return to pragmatism

After a year of trying to chart a new course on America’s Middle East policy, Biden is making his first trip to the region with policies far more in line with Trump than he’d like to admit.

“I think the big thing that changed a lot of these policies was Russia invading Ukraine,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

The demand for an immediate alternative supply to Russian fossil fuels pushed Biden to re-engage with the Saudis. The need for a stable, pro-American alliance in a region it does not want to be sucked back into has turned the White House into an energetic advocate of building on the Abraham Accords, pushing for a closer Saudi-Israel relationship even without a substantial quid pro quo from Israel on the Palestinians. And the Biden administration is set to form the backbone of the regional air defense framework that integrates Israeli and Gulf systems with US satellites.

“This is a return to pragmatism, which, when you take a step back, is what Biden promised,” said Schanzer. “This is the president that he said he would be as a candidate, and so maybe it took a year of some trial and error… but I think we’re finally possibly getting back to where we should be: pragmatic foreign policy, which has long served the United States.”

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