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It was always going to be awkward – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s greeting with US President Joe Biden.
Much speculated about, the image itself, from a camera position that was denied to the press traveling with Biden, was even more powerful than all the conjecture that preceded it. Like the winner of a long-distance race, the Crown Prince, known commonly as MBS, snatched glory – and reputational redemption – at the finish line.
At the press podium later, Biden confronted the Crown Prince for his role in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The Crown Prince pushed back, denying responsibility for the 2018 killing of the US resident at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, as did Saudi officials who questioned the US’ human rights record over alleged abuses at its Abu Ghraib jail, during the Iraq War.
But that image of the fist bump was what the Saudis wanted – a reputational boost putting MBS in pole position in a region where rivalries and power plays are a fact of life.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, claimed it was good for Biden, too.
“I see the image as a win for President Biden, I think, because he is engaging with one of the key partners of the United States, in the region, and beyond. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a key player in regional stability,” he told CNN in an exclusive interview.
Biden came to the desert kingdom first, rather than other energy-rich Gulf kingdoms such as the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, and did business with the de facto leader of the nation he on the campaign trail vowed to make a “pariah.”
Nevertheless, Biden signaled success, hinting more oil will flow from the region to counter the reduced flow from Russia in the wake of Western sanctions imposed following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. But the President came home without a public promise of increased oil production. Pressed by reporters on the issue, Biden said, “I’m doing all I can to increase the supply,” adding that increases would be seen in weeks. “We’ll see more when we see gas stations start to lower their price consistent with what they’re paying for oil,” he added.
But there was more on Biden’s wish list – specifically his desire to increase regional stability by normalizing Saudi/Israel relations, as well as filling what he called a “vacuum” caused by cooled US relations with MBS that is allowing China and Russia to increase their influence in the Middle East.
Apart from the “finish line” fist bump photo op, MBS wants a clear strategy from the White House on the Gulf. Saudi specifically wants security guarantees, US partners for the myriad business ventures the Crown Prince’s ambitious “Vision 2030” is generating, and a partner in government in Israel who can deliver on what it wants for improved relations.
The questions concerning all the issues faced in the Jeddah meeting are: What’s the cost and where’s the compromise? Pain versus gain.
Biden says he won’t let Iran get a nuclear weapon. MBS has indicated if it does, he’ll get his own. And while Israel wants a strike option to prevent a nuclear Iran, MBS fears a war could cripple his economy. Nevertheless, he wants Iran’s threat gone, while the White House signals Russia is increasingly partnering with Iran.
No deal discussed in the region is ever simply bilateral. This one was made more complex at the meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC + 3) – an alliance of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan – Saturday by the UAE and Iraq flatly ruling out joining any security agreement that might affect Iran.
Riyadh sees the benefit of rapprochement with Israel, but realizes that if it were badly handled, it could cut down its towering role in the Muslim world, blowing back not just on Saudi, but the US and Israel, too.
The price of a Saudi-Israel deal, which even before Biden arrived seemed an extreme aspirational outlier, will be high.
If it had been done during the Biden visit, the cost would have been even higher, because the Saudis believe no Israeli leader can deliver on the commitments they want – currently a Palestinian two-state solution.
Saudi Arabia is not saying publicly what security guarantees could offset that, but a free flow of weapons, a defensive missile shield to protect against Iran, even NATO-style commitments to come to the kingdom’s aid in extremis could be on its wish list, along with toning down criticism of the Saudi human rights record.
Nonetheless, Biden’s visit was able to deliver a narrowing of Saudi-Israel differences.
At a press conference listing his “wins,” the first two successes that Biden cited were a Saudi concession to Israel, and one from Israel for Saudi.
The US President said “the Saudis will open their airspace to all civilian carriers … it means Saudi airspace is now open to flights to and from Israel.” Biden defined it as a “tangible” first step toward a “broader normalization of relations.”
The second item on Biden’s list was “a historic deal to transform a flashpoint at the heart of the Middle East wars into an area of peace,” with the Saudis agreeing concessions assuaging Israeli security concerns over the strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir.
The inescapable backdrop to the meetings was the sense of the White House playing catch-up in a region where many feel both the current and previous administrations have been negligent. US officials were briefing about Russia’s increasing support for Iran, and a deal with Saudi to counter China’s influence through 5G technologies.
If Biden arrived thinking he was ready to play his best diplomatic hand to improve relations amid energy shortages and security concerns, the fist bump, despite the backlash, may have been it.
Early readouts suggest Biden’s vision of future US-Middle East engagement was just what the Saudis wanted to hear, despite the warnings on human rights violations.
If Biden is right, and gas prices do come down, that’s also a win at home. But the hard work on improving relations will have only just begun; the Saudis will be looking for follow-ups, an invite to Washington for MBS.
If this were to happen, Biden would no doubt put a high price on it. Fist bumps would be thin on the ground.
UAE President arrives in France to discuss “future of energy” between both nations
UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, widely known as MBZ, was received by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Monday during a visit aimed at focusing on the “future of energy” between the two nations.
- Background: Macron welcomed MBZ after he arrived at the Élysée Palace in what is his first visit outside the Middle East since taking office in May. The visit is also the first by a UAE leader to France since 1991, according to the Élysée Palace. The two countries will sign an agreement Monday guaranteeing the supply of diesel from the UAE to France, an Élysée source said. The two countries are also looking to set up a fund for climate-related projects, as well investment opportunities in other energy fields, such as hydrogen, nuclear and renewable energies, the same source told journalists on Friday.
- Why it matters: After Biden’s landmark visit reaped no guarantees, MBZ’s visit to Paris highlights the importance leaders are now placing on bilateral relationships, in an attempt to secure energy sources. In a media briefing on Friday, MBZ’s Élysée diplomatic adviser, Anwar Gargash, told reporters that “our oil has traditionally been sold to the Far East. I think right now there is more interest in our oil in Europe … so, other than that, our interest with France is in sustainable and future energy.”
Abu Dhabi Court sentenced Khashoggi’s US lawyer to three years in prison – state media
A court in the UAE sentenced US citizen Asim Ghafoor, the former lawyer of slain Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Khashoggi, to three years in prison for tax evasion and money launderings, state news agency WAM reported on Saturday, adding that the case came up when US authorities asked for judicial assistance in their own investigations of Ghafoor.
- Background: Ghafoor was convicted of committing “two crimes of tax evasion and money laundering related to a tax evasion operation” and sentenced to “three years in prison and a fine of three million dirhams ($817,000), with deportation from the UAE,” WAM reported. US officials said Saturday they were “aware” of reports that Ghafoor had been detained in the UAE but declined to offer any other details on his arrest. “I will say there’s no indication that it has anything to do with Khashoggi, or anything else. But we are aware of it,” a senior administration official said. A US State Department spokesperson on Sunday said they expect Ghafoor to be treated humanely, to be given a fair trial and have consular access.
- Why it matters: The arrest came amid Biden’s controversial visit to Saudi Arabia, where he finally met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The US President was heavily criticized for his trip, from which he returned home with no guarantees for more oil. When Biden met with UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Jeddah, both leaders ignored shouted questions about Khashoggi’s former lawyer. Biden publicly invited the UAE leader to Washington before the end of the year.
Khamenei’s advisor says Iran has technical ability to make a nuclear bomb – Al Jazeera
Iran has the technical ability to make a nuclear bomb but has not yet decided whether to build one, Kamal Kharrazi, senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Qatar’s Al Jazeera TV channel on Sunday.
- Background: “It is no secret that we have the technical ability to make a nuclear bomb,” Kharrazi told Al Jazeera, adding that Iran was able to enrich uranium up to 60% in a few days, and could easily increase that to 90%, which is suitable for a nuclear bomb. Kharrazi added that the US has not provided guarantees that would preserve the 2015 nuclear deal, which hampers the possibility of an agreement. Iran had been in discussion with world powers to revive a deal that would limit Tehran’s nuclear weapon abilities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Talks have stalled in recent months over various sticking points.
- Why it matters: Kharrazi’s comments come just as President Biden returned from a Middle East tour visiting Israel and Saudi Arabia, where Israel had been announcing plans for a US-led air defense system with its Arab partners. The UAE on Friday said it that it has no interest in joining an anti-Iran alliance, and Saudi Arabia said it wanted to resolve its differences with Iran through diplomacy but was also working with the US to build capacity to “defend against potential Iranian aggression.”
What to watch
A Uyghur family in Saudi Arabia faces deportation to China, where it is likely they will face persecution. One man behind bars urged President Biden to act while on his visit to the kingdom.
CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh reports:
Around the region
The prospect of hopping on the back of a motorbike and riding any distance at all would seem daunting or even dangerous to many people. Not so for Irishman Evan Bourke, who plans to ride more than 6,000 miles on his trusty Suzuki DR650 from Dubai to his native county of Donegal, in Ireland.
“I’ve always liked to travel, and since I’ve got into bikes, I’ve always liked to travel by motorbike,” Bourke told CNN. “It’s the best way to see a place, because you’re not constricted by bus stops or train stops.”
You may well wonder what could possess a human to attempt such a ludicrous journey, over mountains and deserts, in the sweltering heat and bitter cold. Bourke has one good reason, at least – the Emirates Red Crescent, the UAE affiliate of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The money he raises will go to support orphans from conflict zones, with every $1.50 contributed feeding a child for a day. The 33-year-old has already hit his target of 10,000 dirhams (around $2,700), with 45 days of fundraising to go.
“I didn’t think I’d reach the target already, it’s a really good feeling,” he said. “There’s even a hotel chain that has offered me to stay for free in Turkey, which is nice of them.”
Bourke’s journey will take him through 11 different countries, his first stop being Iran, before moving through others such as Turkey, Albania, Croatia and Italy. Does he have any doubts about embarking on such an epic tour?
“I’ve no worries at all at the moment; I’ve quite a few friends who are from these countries and I’ll be seeing them along the way. I’m under strict orders from the mother to contact her every day, but generally the family are happy out for me to be doing it.”
To deal with the near 120°F heat in the deserts of southern Iran, the cold nights in the Italian Alps and the damp rains of Ireland, Bourke has packed clothes for all occasions, including a cooling vest, dry gear and ventilation jerseys. He has equipped his bike with a larger fuel tank , and will be carrying camping equipment for the duration of the journey.
Bourke had originally scheduled the trip for early 2020, but he postponed it because of the Covid-19 pandemic. You can follow his travels on social media.
By Eoin McSweeney