Soapbox Sunday: June 5
Joe Biden and the gang go to Riyadh.
My apologies for the delayed release of this week’s column. Unfortunately, unforseen issues kept me from releasing the column on Friday. However, I am also considering moving the column to Sunday as it would work better with a round-up of the Middle East. I will keep you posted on this space.
When he is not trying his best to start World War 3, US President Joe Biden demonstrates a remarkable level of humility. It is for this reason that Biden is planning to visit Riyadh later this month to meet with the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS). On Thursday, reports surfaced that the White House is arranging a trip for Biden to meet various Arab leaders, and the itinerary allegedly includes a stop in Riyadh. That these reports emerged two days after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with MBS is a happy coincidence.
During the 2020 presidential elections, Biden made a point of declaring his disdain towards Saudi Arabia and MBS in particular. As president, Biden promised he would make the Saudis “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” Biden also added that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia”.
At that time, Biden’s position found a receptive audience in the Acela corridor and the halls of American imperial power. In 2018, MBS had sent a hit squad to Istanbul to murder a Saudi journalist by the name of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi – critical of MBS and living in the US as a resident - had gone into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain some papers where he was ambushed, drugged, and dismembered. Of course, unlike the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis starving as a result of MBS’s military campaign against the Houthis, Jamal Khashoggi mattered to the journalist class. He wrote for the Washington Post and presumably cavorted with other luminaries of the DC press as Thomas Freidman, David Brooks, John Brennan, et al. He was a made man, and as Goodfellas made it abundantly clear, you do not kill made men.
MBS, long touted as a daring reformer in the ultraconservative kingdom, became a pariah. Nobody wanted to associate with him. In this milieu, Biden scored easy points criticizing the Saudis and promising to disentangle the US from the Gulf monarchy, but two years of pandemic and a Russian invasion of Ukraine later, Biden finds himself in a tricky situation.
At the core of Biden’s headaches is oil. In June of 2021, Brent crude was $73.16/barrel. Americans paid on average $3.05/gallon at the pump. A year later, Americans are paying $4.84/gallon to fill their tanks and drive in one of the most anti-public transit countries in the world. The price of Brent is hovering at $120/barrel. With a US midterm election coming up and his poll numbers plummeting, Biden has decided to swallow his pride and meet with MBS.
Of course, Biden’s show of humility has a price. On the same day as the reports of his visit to Riyadh surfaced, OPEC+ confirmed a massive increase in oil production starting in July. Starting in July, OPEC+ will increase oil output by 648,000 barrels per day (bpd) every month. The cartel has been hesitant to increase output even as the US and other major consumers have been begging for a jump in production to cool prices down, but months of pressure appear to have paid off even if it means Biden has to sit down with MBS and regale him with Corn Pop stories.
Ironically, the US-Saudi relationship began in 1945 with a simple promise of the US providing security in exchange for access to cheap oil. Since then, many things have changed, but it seems that the cornerstone of this relationship remains as strong as ever. Not that the US political elite mind either. MBS may have stepped out of line by whacking a made man, but the political ruling class and the journalists have had no issue with the Saudi-led war in Yemen since 2015. Everyone will accept a rapprochement with a war criminal psychopath if it means cheaper oil. After all, 500,000 Yemenis is a small price to pay for cheaper treats on Uber Eats and cheaper Amazon deliveries in the DC suburbs.