The fags of the Russian Federation and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Russia takes on the Pariah mantle as the US makes up with Saudi

Biden’s first overseas trip

In June 2021 the newly elected US President Biden made his first overseas trip, which included an in-person meeting with President Putin of Russia. The pair met with their foreign ministers, Anthony Blinken and Sergey Lavrov, in Geneva, in what was supposed to be two meetings; the first, in a small group with interpreters, and a second longer - less confidential - meeting with more officials discussing a longer agenda. Biden used the more discreet of the two meetings as an opportunity to ask Putin to stop cyber attacks on the US, and provide a lecture on the importance of human rights, while Putin used it as an opportunity to size up Biden’s personality and resolve.

As far as anyone can tell from outside the room the two Presidents quickly ran out of things to talk about. To both Biden’s own officials and the Russian delegation it was painfully clear that Biden’s rather indistinct approach represented a significant shift in the conduct of US foreign policy. It was certainly less robust than that of the prior Administration, which for all the unhelpful eccentricities of former President Trump was otherwise remarkably coherent.

Saudi, Oil, Standards and Values

The foreign policy issue that Biden was very robust about during his election campaign in 2019 was on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (“KSA”). Biden said it deserved to be made an international “pariah” as a result of its involvement in the murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.

In a policy volte face President Biden has just visited KSA, and met with its ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) with a jovial fist bump, whom he had previously blamed for the Khashoggi murder. In the period since Biden’s original rhetoric the price of oil has nearly tripled, Russia has invaded Ukraine and put its nuclear weapons on alert, the deal to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons of their own torn up by the Trump Administration is no nearer being rehabilitated, relations with China remain fraught, and USD rates and inflation are rising at their fastest in a generation.

A cynic might say that Biden has conveniently ditched is moral outrage in order to ask the KSA to produce more oil to bring down its price and curb inflation in the US. The first duty of government is to maintain the economy and prevent rioting in the streets; standards and values matter of course, but not as much as the price of gasoline or inflation, as it turns out. It is far from clear that he will succeed in this objective; there are limited reasons for KSA or any other GCC country to release more of their reserves of oil to depress the price. in fact as I write the price of oil (Brent crude benchmark) has just pushed back above $100 per barrel because the market doesn’t believe the KSA will release more reserves.

However, the general entente between the US and the KSA - even if Biden’s key request has been rejected - is also despite the fact that due to limitations on processing capacity the KSA is buying more fuel oil from Russia to generate power than before the conflict in Ukraine. KSA doubled its imports of Russian fuel oil in Q2.

In February of this year, President Biden said that Russia should be made a “pariah” because of the invasion of Ukraine. Biden obviously likes dishing out pariah status, but perhaps nobody should take the epithet too seriously.

Iran, Oil and Nuclear Proliferation

The other reason for President Biden’s trip to the Middle East was to try to reignite the Iran nuclear deal: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under the JCPOA - which involved the UK, France, China, Russia, Germany and the EU, but President Trump tore up in 2018 - Iran was allowed to export more of its oil in exchange for limiting its nuclear ambitions, which again would help the US with inflation.

However, now the deal is dead, it has strong resistance from both KSA and Israel, who have been on better terms with each other than ever before - in large part due to their distrust of Iran. Both are key political and economic allies of the US in the region. In a recent news interview the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir was asked about the meeting between President Biden and MBS and what was said about the Khashoggi case. With his customary and disarming charm, Adel al-Jubeir alluded to the fact that what is said on the campaign trail “sometimes doesn’t get reflected in terms of being in office, because [Presidents] have access to more intelligence and because they have access to a fuller and broader picture”. Having swept that diplomatic embarrassment to one side as an understandable feature of the real politik it seems that the KSA team wanted to focus much more on what Adel al-Jubeir described as the “threat from Iran”.

US Foreign Policy Mistakes have Driven both Russia and Iran in to the Arms of China

Just as Russia’s pariah status has driven it to do more business with China, and the energy crisis has caused the KSA to buy more Russian fuel oil, so the failure of the JCPOA has caused China to import record amounts of Iranian oil: China now imports more Iranian oil than it did before the imposition of sanctions on Iran in 2017.

President Biden has just fist bumped in to contact with two pieces of political reality:

  1. There is limited incentive for KSA to release more of its oil reserves while the price hovers around $100 per barrel, and

  2. There is almost no incentive for Russia or China to re-start the JCPOA, and there is pressure on the US from the KSA and Israel to prevent it.

Over the last year, President Biden’s approval rating has fallen from 52% to 38%, and the annualized rate of inflation has nearly doubled to 9.1%: gasoline prices were one of the most significant components of that, having risen 59.9%. The President’s visit to the Middle East is unlikely to have turned either of those around.

Further Reading