President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his outward clenched fist bump greetings with the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman indicates a new chapter in the 77-year US-Saudi alliance.

The visit provides a prospect for the US to repair relations with its most strategically significant ally in the Gulf which has been going in a downward spiral since 9/11.

It was not long ago that President Biden in his presidential campaign vowed to make Saudi Arabia a global “pariah” over the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018. However, it is not possible for Washington to sustain itself without Riyadh, the world’s largest oil exporter.

Riyadh is an economic powerhouse in the Middle East. The only way for Washington to isolate or pressurize the Russian oil market during the Ukrainian crisis is to do it through oil markets in Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, the spike in the oil prices by Western sanctions on Russia, coupled with Riyadh’s refusal to increase oil production, leaves Biden with no option other than to reset ties and cool relations.

History of the US-Saudi alliance

Historically, the US and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed strategic long-standing relations. The two sides have sought reconciliation every time there has been a crack in friendship, to maintain their strategic interests.

In exchange for access to vast Saudi oil reserves, the US has guaranteed to provide security to Saudi leaders. Thus, the decisive partnership between the two has survived various crises and differences.

In 1973, the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting countries (OAPEC) led by Saudi Arabia imposed an oil embargo on countries, including the US, that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

The embargo led to an oil crisis in the US with the dollar’s devaluation in the early 1970s. The partnership between the US and Saudi Arabia still endured.

However, a bitter atmosphere has lingered between the two partners since the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessed that the de facto Crown Prince ordered the murder of Khashoggi.

Jamal Khashoggi was a journalist and a columnist for the Washington Post who often criticized the policies of the Crown Prince.

On 2 October 2018, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul but was however suspiciously murdered.

While the Crown Prince denied any involvement in the killing, however President Biden during his campaign for the most powerful seat in the world, vowed to make Riyadh a “pariah” over the murder.

The transactional alliance

The string of questions that now arises is why is Biden reversing the course of words and actions with Saudi Arabia? What is the purpose of President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia? Why does the Crown Prince still want to hold talks with Biden, and what is he looking to achieve from this?

Necessity. Despite the challenges in their relations, Riyadh and Washington are stuck with each other due to the necessity of each other’s strategic advantage.

It is not the first time in more than 70 years of relations that the US has seen Saudi Arabia in transactional terms. Biden needs Saudi Arabia to increase oil production and lower the fuel prices which have skyrocketed since sanctions have been imposed on Russia, an exporter of 10% of the world’s crude oil.

Additionally, Biden also has pressure to lower the fuel process for the US consumers before the upcoming November state elections.

Saudi Arabia wants recognition of its power by the global hegemon, the US. Biden’s visit signifies the power Saudi Arabia holds both in the international oil market and in the global arena. Moreover, it indicates Saudi Arabia as a key player and a bulwark of security in the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia is also looking for foreign investors to push its tourism industry to the top of the global stage. The tourism market is currently the second most profitable market for Saudi Arabia after oil.

Riyadh has vowed to dedicate $100 million to establish The Tourism Support Fund. Moreover, Riyadh envisions attracting 100 million tourists by 2030. To achieve this transformation in the tourism industry, it has opened doors to the US, once again.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia also wants greater security assurance from the US. This is because a nuclear-armed neighbor, Iran, is on the rise. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is also warming its relations with Israel in the region.

Opening of Airspace for Israel 

The most immediate outcome of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia was the announcement of the opening of the Saudi airspace to Israel. In the historic decision, Biden became the first US President to fly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh.

During his visit, Biden also signed a number of memorandums with Riyadh. These were mainly related to technology, cybersecurity, clean energy, and health.

This indicates Washington’s efforts toward easing the strained relations with the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, Riyadh.

While Riyadh has increased the production of oil to 13 million barrels per day, Biden’s request to lower the oil price remains unsure. This is because both sides have not talked about oil prices directly. This indicates that Biden is not looking to achieve immediate results from his visit.

Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia can be underlined as more of paying a friendly visit to the strategic partner and turning a new page in their relations. Overall, the visit indicates that we are on a mission to re-establish relations with the Arab states.

The fate of the region

While Biden’s single-day visit to Riyadh will not change much immediately, it is likely to usher in a new chapter in US-Saudi ties.

However, there is only so much the US can do in the Middle East considering the challenges it is facing on multiple fronts. The fate of the Middle East lies mainly in the hand of regional leaders. The commitment and response of regional leaders to cater to their people will ultimately shape the wider landscape.

The utmost priority of the regional leaders should be to continue their efforts for a peace dialogue in conflict-affected areas. These include de-escalation and stabilization efforts in Yemen, Syria, Libya Lebanon, and Iraq. Additionally, the leaders urgently need to recognize the gravity of bringing a plausible solution on the Israeli-Palestinian front.


*The writer is a final year student of International Relations at Kinnaird. 

*The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the institutions.