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Decoding Biden’s Saudi Arabia-Israel visit

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US President Joe Biden’s Middle East Policy is likely to be influenced by US domestic politics over the next few months. First, the US President needs to keep domestic oil prices under the check in the run up to the US mid terms later this year, and in that context, the announcement by  Ministers of Saudi led OPEC along with its allies, earlier this month that OPEC+, will drill more oil is welcome news. During the ministerial meeting on June 2, 2022, Ministers of OPEC+ countries agreed on adding 6,48,000 barrels of oil daily in July and August as opposed to the earlier 4,32,000 barrels per day  . After the commencement of the Ukraine-Russia war, Biden had asked Saudi Arabia and UAE to drill more oil, but they had both declined.  The US President has denied that his visit, which has faced scathing criticism from not just human rights activists, but a number of democrat lawmakers, to Saudi Arabia in July 2022 has been prompted by the oil factor. Said Biden while commenting on his Saudi visit in July 2022:

‘The commitments from the Saudis don’t relate to anything having to do with energy. It happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia.’

While oil is an important aspect, Biden is also keen to broker a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel (the US President shall also be visiting Israel), along the lines of the Abraham Accords signed between UAE, Bahrain and Israel in 2020 with the US being a mediator (trade between UAE and Israel was estimated at USD 1.2 billion in 2021 and both countries also signed a Free Trade Agreement FTA in May 2022)

Senior officials from Saudi Arabia and Israel have been meeting in recent months. In 2020, former Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu visited Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2020 for talks pertaining to advancing diplomatic relations. Apart from high level interactions between officials of Israel and Saudi Arabia, the last few months have been witness to visits by heads of Israeli tech companies to Saudi Arabia. Saudis have also invested USD 2 Billion venture in a private-equity fund, Affinity Partners, headed by Jared Kushner (son in law of former President Donald Trump who was also envoy to the Middle East during the Trump Administration). Saudi Arabia has also invested in Israeli start ups via a venture fund headed by Steven Mnuchin, Treasury sector in the Trump administration.

Israeli Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid while commenting on Biden’s Middle East visit said:

“The fact that the president’s going to fly directly from here to Saudi Arabia is probably signifying that there is a linkage between the visit and the ability to improve relations,”

While Saudi Arabia has repeatedly stated that normalisation of ties with Israel will be subject to the addressal of the Palestinian issue, both Israel and Saudi Arabia view Iran as a common threat, and as discussed earlier are keen to strengthen economic ties.  Both countries could begin with direct commercial flights (last year an Israeli private jetlanded in Saudi Arabia for the first time) and greater economic linkages

Any progress in Saudi Arabia-Israel ties with US backing could help Biden to prevent his popularity from sliding down any further since he could tout it as a foreign policy achievement. This would further bolster MBS’s image at home, and abroad and also help in strengthening Israeli PM Naftali Bennett’s image at home. Bennett is a right winger and while Israel has been critical of the Iran deal and taken a different stance on the Ukraine issue, he runs a coalition which consists of left leaning outfits as well as centrists which will prevent him from being as hawkish as his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu. The next few months are likely to pose numerous challenges for the Biden Administration, it remains to be seen if his Middle East visit in July 2022 pans out.