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Biden Needs More Than Oil From Saudi Arabia

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In agreeing to visit Saudi Arabia next month, US President Joe Biden has stepped back from his vow to treat the country as a “pariah.” Critics have blasted him for overlooking Saudi human-rights violations, including the brutal murder and dismemberment of former Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In exchange, Biden has won only a token increase in oil production that won’t do much to lower gas prices at home.

Even so, Biden’s trip can serve a valuable purpose. Healthy US-Saudi ties are critical to calming a volatile part of the world and stabilizing global energy markets. When he meets with Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — widely known as MBS — Biden should make clear that improved relations require both nations to respect the other’s core interests.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has always had a strongly transactional element. The U.S. provides security through arms sales and military deployments, and in turn the world’s swing oil producer stabilizes prices. But the importance of the alliance goes beyond oil. The Saudis are indispensable to any effort to blunt Iran’s regional ambitions. Their blessing could well determine whether or not more Arab nations normalize relations with Israel. Snubbing Saudi leaders will only encourage them to deepen growing links with fellow autocrats in Russia and China.

Engaging with the Saudis, however, doesn’t mean placating them. If the US is to reaffirm its commitment to Saudi security — which has been complicated by the administration’s attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and to shift resources to the Indo-Pacific — then Saudi leaders must pull back from their flirtation with the Russians and Chinese.

The US has a right to expect further increases in oil production, for instance — not because they will necessarily reduce prices at the pump, but to curb how much Russian President Vladimir Putin profits off continued aggression in Ukraine. The Saudis should also limit the volume and sophistication of the weapons they buy from China, and curtail the two nations’ growing cooperation over ballistic-missile and uranium-enrichment technology.

Biden should press MBS as well to follow up on his initial moves to expand ties with Israel. While progress toward full normalization will be gradual, Saudi leaders should be prepared to develop a clear road map to joining the Abraham Accords, as Gulf allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates already have. They can start by allowing more Israeli commercial flights to cross Saudi airspace and expanding business and people-to-people ties.

Riyadh should also engage in more open military and intelligence cooperation with Israel, working to integrate air defenses across the region and conducting more joint military exercises. Only a truly unified coalition that includes Gulf states, Israel and the US will have a chance of deterring Iran’s proxy attacks and missile proliferation across the Middle East, which will pose a threat regardless of whether the Iran nuclear deal is revived.

Finally, Biden shouldn’t shy away from addressing areas of tension between the two countries. He should press the Saudis to work more intensively with the United Nations to transform the recently extended cease-fire in Yemen into a lasting peace settlement. Though MBS has expanded some social liberties and the place of women in Saudi society, his government has also imprisoned Saudi activists for promoting similar reforms. They should be released and others allowed to leave the country if they wish. As for Khashoggi’s murder, Biden isn’t likely to elicit any public contrition, but Saudi leaders should at least guarantee that no similar atrocity will take place again.

Like Biden’s trip itself, such gestures should properly be seen not as concessions but as investments in a relationship that both nations need to work. If Biden can restore that frayed understanding, his visit will have been worth it.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Biden Yields to Saudis as Gasoline Prices Soar: Bobby Ghosh

• Saudi Arabia’s Oil Whisperer Spills Some of His Secrets: Javier Blas

• How Did Jared Kushner Get $2 Billion From Saudis?: Timothy L. O’Brien

The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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