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Biden Left Waiting for Benefits After Fist Bump in Saudi Arabia

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In the balmy backyard of the Israeli president’s residence this week, President Joe Biden was reminded of “a great enthusiasm” for the Jewish state when he first came as a US senator 50 years ago.

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(Bloomberg) — In the balmy backyard of the Israeli president’s residence this week, President Joe Biden was reminded of “a great enthusiasm” for the Jewish state when he first came 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 Biden was enthusiastic.

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

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

Biden and the crown prince pushed through a tightly choreographed summit designed to repair ties while avoiding the suggestion Biden was too chummy or obsequious. The goal was clear: The US was turning the page and avoiding anything that would endanger more oil production.

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

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The Saudi wager prompted howls of hypocrisy from activists and allies at home and in the Gulf states whom Biden needs to address energy shortages. The payoff may be months away — if it comes at all.

No Firm Commitment on Oil

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 an announcement may be delayed until OPEC+’s August meeting, increases won’t be calibrated until early fall and any drop in US gasoline prices will fall close to the November elections. 

Even then, it’s 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. 

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Highlighting the limits of the president’s control, crude prices have declined about 17% since Biden announced his Saudi visit in June, as recession fears overtook supply concerns. According to Bloomberg Economics models, the chances of a downturn by the start of 2024 were close to 75% as of last month.

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

The president brokered a historic agreement between the Israelis and Saudi Arabia, which opened its airspace in a decision that should reduce flight times between Israel and Asia. US peacekeeping troops will depart a pair of islands in the Red Sea, paving the way for Saudi Arabia to take control and develop it.

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Biden and his aides insisted that the agreements represented the first step in what would be an actual signature accomplishment — normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“This is a big deal,” Biden told reporters on Saturday. “This is the first tangible step in the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations.”

US hopes for a regional air defense shield in which Israel and Gulf nations would share defense technologies and intelligence to protect themselves from Iran and its proxies went unrealized. Iraq announced it intends to link its power grid with Arab partners in an effort to reduce Iran’s influence.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance of Sunni-dominated Arab states, unveiled new efforts to combat food insecurity caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the US chipping in $1 billion. But there were few indications that the group plans to harden its stance toward Moscow, even as Biden aides revealed intelligence suggesting Iran might begin selling armed drones to Russia.

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Fist Bump Seen ‘Round The World

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

US officials attempted to limit the fallout from the meeting, 

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

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

The Saudis countered by releasing images of Biden and Prince Mohammed smiling and talking, showing the futility of any US attempts to deny his legitimacy. But Biden still faced criticism at home.

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Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House intelligence committee, said the moment was “a visual reminder of the continuing grip oil-rich autocrats have on US foreign policy.”

‘Clear, Candid’

The crown prince defended the kingdom’s handling of the incident and tossed back actions by the US and Israel, including the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and recent killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist.

Biden called for a “full and transparent accounting” of her killing, which the State Department said was likely an accidental shooting by Israeli Defense Forces, but has not sought to punish Israel.

“That’s the type of conversation and communication we are used to between the kingdom and the United States of America — clear, candid, direct, because that’s the way that we move forward,” said Princess Reema bint Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the US.

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The intention for the Saudis was to seek a “more solid, institutionalized form of security commitments,” said Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Oil Fundamentals

As the meetings concluded late Friday evening, both sides rushed to spin the proceedings.

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir told US reporters that any decision on oil would be based “on fundamentals, not on speculation, not on hysteria, not on geopolitics.”

At a hastily arranged parallel news conference, Biden appeared frustrated by the criticism of his efforts, dismissing one question as “silly” and laughing when another noted the attacks on his approach. He pleaded with skeptics for patience on the trip’s dividends. 

“The bottom line is: This trip is about once again positioning America in this region for the future,” Biden said. “We are not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill. And we’re getting results.” 

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