By John Kiriakou / Original to ScheerPost
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of reports for ScheerPost by correspondent John Kiriakou covering the President’s historic trip to Saudi Arabia. Kiriakou is a former CIA agent and an Arabic speaker with extensive experience working in the Middle East.
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA — President Biden arrived in Jeddah, the summer capital of Saudi Arabia, this afternoon for a visit that the White House describes as laser-focused on oil, regional security, and “repairing” the damage that the Trump Administration did to the US’s stature in the region. He arrived from Israel, where he had received a hero’s welcome and was feted by Israeli politicians on the left and the right. Even the short time he spent with the Palestinian leadership was warm. The trip to Saudi Arabia should be so nice. And the reasons for the visit should be so clear—and so uncomplicated.
The truth is that Biden is arriving in Jeddah with hat in hand to ask the Saudis to increase oil production. That, of course, would lower oil prices and help the Administration to get a hold on inflation. But the Saudis (and the Emiratis and the Kuwaitis) already have said that their oil industries are operating near maximum capacity. They just can’t increase production, they claim. I doubt they would increase oil production even if they could. Oil aside, the president has other problems as the visit begins.
Biden has been rightly tough on Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia since becoming president. Salman runs the day-to-day operations of the country for his infirm, 86-year-old father, and he does so with an iron fist. He overthrew his cousin, the popular Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, to become Crown Prince. He jailed everybody within the royal family whom he thought might even eventually pose a threat to him. He exiled dozens of relatives. There are rumors that he killed several.
Biden’s problem with Muhammad bin Salman, of course, is the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and US permanent resident, who was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, apparently on the direct orders of Muhammad, murdered there, and butchered. His remains have never been found. Biden has been adamant that he would not speak with Muhammad. He would not sit down with the man. He vowed during the 2020 presidential campaign to make Muhammad a “pariah.” That was, of course, before gas hit $5.00 a gallon.
Biden has waffled on what, exactly, it means to make someone a “pariah.” In June, the president said that he would not meet with Muhammad on this trip because of the Khashoggi murder. A few days ago, the White House released a statement saying that Biden would meet with Muhammad, but not one-on-one. Instead, Muhammad would sit in on the President’s meeting with King Salman. And in the hours before Biden’s arrival in Jeddah, the White House said that he would, indeed, have a private meeting with Muhammad. But in a move that has many of Biden’s supporters and human rights activists apoplectic, he would not confirm to journalists that he would even raise the Khashoggi murder. This afternoon, before even meeting the King, Biden did indeed meet privately with Muhammad. But they didn’t shake hands. They fist-bumped each other.
One of the things that surprises me is the risk that Joe Biden is taking just by making this trip. Going to Israel is one thing. Going to Saudi Arabia is another thing entirely. A Saudi visit with nothing to show for it in the end would be politically damaging at home. What will the American voter think if Biden returns to Washington with no promise of increased oil production? What will the American voter think if Biden proposes a former regional defense agreement that includes both Israel and Saudi Arabia and nothing comes of it? What happens if he objects to Saudi Arabia selling oil to China and having them pay for it in yuan instead of dollars and nothing changes? What happens if he raises the Khashoggi murder and Muhammad tells him to go fly a kite? The stakes are very high.
Just hours before Biden arrived in Jeddah, the Saudi government announced that the President would fly there directly from Israel. It would be the first time ever that a plane flew directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia. And the Saudis added that, effective immediately, Israel’s national air carrier, El Al would be permitted to land in Saudi Arabia, and that the Saudi national carrier, Saudia, would be allowed to land in Israel. It’s a symbolic move that does literally nothing to help the Palestinian people. On Saturday, Biden will participate in a multilateral meeting with King Salman, the Amir of Kuwait, the King of Bahrain, the Amir of Qatar, the President of the United Arab Emirates, the Sultan of Oman, the President of Egypt, and the Prime Minister of Jordan. The White House has told us not to expect any breakthroughs.