Biden left awaiting benefits after fist bump in Saudi Arabia

Payoff in terms of increased Saudi oil production may be months away, if it comes at all

WASHINGTON • In the balmy backyard of the Israeli President's residence last week, US President Joe Biden was reminded of "a great enthusiasm" for the Jewish state when he first visited as a US senator 50 years ago.

The next day, at his first meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, no one would believe that Mr Biden was enthusiastic.

The awkward encounter - embodied by a grudging fist bump with a leader he had hoped to marginalise after the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi - underscored his calculus as a president desperate to bring home relief from high petrol prices.

For the crown prince, the meeting delivered the stamp of US legitimacy. His officials worked to seize the opportunity to dispense with blame for Mr Khashoggi's murder and convey the notion that Saudi Arabia holds the key to lower fuel prices.

Mr Biden and the crown prince pushed through a tightly choreographed summit designed to repair ties while avoiding the suggestion that the US leader was too chummy or obsequious.

The goal was clear: The United States was turning the page and avoiding anything that would endanger more oil production.

It was a gamble by Mr Biden, who returns to Washington in precarious political standing. His legislative agenda is bogged down by his own party, with the midterm elections just months away and allies increasingly frustrated his White House has not achieved many of its aims.

The Saudi wager prompted howls of hypocrisy from activists and allies at home and in the Gulf states whom Mr Biden needs to address energy shortages.

The payoff may be months away, if it comes at all.

Mr Biden departed Saudi Arabia on Saturday without a firm commitment for a production hike that could ease pain at the pump, saying only that based on his conversations, he expects "further steps in the coming weeks".

That suggests that an announcement may be delayed until Opec's August meeting, that increases would not be calibrated until early autumn and any drop in US oil prices will fall close to the November elections.

Even then, it is unclear if Gulf countries plan to boost production, a potentially crucial distinction given the looming end of US strategic-reserve sales and coming European sanctions on Russian energy.

Highlighting the limits of the President's control, crude prices have declined about 17 per cent since Mr Biden announced his Saudi visit in June, as recession fears overtook supply concerns.

Mr Biden's whirlwind tour of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jeddah - meeting along the way leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq - offered few other near-term foreign policy victories.

Many in the region were focused - like Americans - on the optics of Mr Biden's visit with the Saudi leader known as MBS.

US officials had told the Saudis to dispense with fanfare like the elaborate airport greetings, sword-dancing and glowing orbs that greeted former president Donald Trump on his trip to the kingdom. Mr Biden's fist bump with MBS, a gesture the White House attributed to coronavirus concerns, avoided a traditional greeting.

And Mr Biden made it a point to raise Mr Khashoggi's killing and his belief in the crown prince's culpability at the top of their meeting.

The Saudis countered by releasing images of Mr Biden and Prince Mohammed smiling and talking, showing the futility of any US attempts to deny his legitimacy.

Returning to the White House on Saturday just before midnight, Mr Biden brushed off a reporter who asked whether he regretted the fist bump. "I'm happy to answer questions that matter," he said.

BLOOMBERG

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2022, with the headline Biden left awaiting benefits after fist bump in Saudi Arabia. Subscribe