Biden’s Saudi Lesson: The Only Path Runs Through M.B.S.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Saudi Arabia that President Biden will visit this week is a country being actively reshaped by the whims and visions of one man: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

As the de facto ruler of the oil-rich monarchy, the 36-year-old prince has cast himself as a reformer, loosening some restrictions of ultraconservative Islam by permitting women to drive and allowing once-forbidden cinemas and concerts.

But the prince’s rule has also been defined by his institutionalization of force — both to quash domestic dissent and to pursue a more muscular foreign policy. Stepping beyond the old Saudi model of quietly cultivating influence with cash-driven diplomacy, Prince Mohammed has bombed Yemen, moved aggressively to jail activists and critics and, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, dispatched the hit squad that murdered the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

It was because of these human rights concerns that Mr. Biden vowed during his election campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and refused once in office to speak with Prince Mohammed, seeking to punish him with isolation.

It did not work.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affecting oil prices and Iran believed to be expanding its nuclear capabilities, Mr. Biden suddenly needs Saudi Arabia’s help — and must confront the reality that the only way to get it is through Prince Mohammed, widely known as M.B.S.

“By the simple fact that M.B.S. managed to hold onto his position domestically, he is the necessary interlocutor if you want to talk to Saudi Arabia,” said Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Regardless of the trip’s outcome, the image of Mr. Biden meeting Prince Mohammed on his own turf will provide validation of the young royal’s position at the helm of one of the most important countries in the Middle East and provide a boost to his vision for the kingdom and its more forceful place in the world.

Mr. Biden’s critics say that is dangerous, demonstrating that wealth and oil remain paramount in great power politics and putting the lie to Mr. Biden’s vow to pursue a foreign policy based on human rights. How, they ask, will the United States discourage other autocrats from crushing their critics after overlooking Prince Mohammed’s abuses in the hope that he can bring down gas prices?

Scholars of the Middle East point out that the United States has a long history of doing business with autocrats, including every Saudi king, and that engagement could more effectively shape their behavior than ostracism.

Perhaps, they argue, a closer American relationship can cultivate the good and discourage the bad in how Prince Mohammed wields his tremendous wealth, power and ambition.

Prince Mohammed appeared to come out of nowhere seven years ago when his elderly father, King Salman, assumed the throne and began delegating power to his favorite son.

But Prince Mohammed showed that he was out for complete control and would do whatever it took to get it, including sidelining, locking up and draining the fortunes of his rivals within the royal family.

As he consolidated his power, he made it clear that he had big plans for Saudi Arabia: to shrug off the kingdom’s past as a somnolent oil monarchy, ruled according to a hyper-conservative interpretation of Islam, that pursued its interests quietly, usually by disbursing huge quantities of cash.

Instead, he wanted the kingdom to claim a position as a global player, known not just for oil and Islam, but for a dynamic, diversified economy that produced its own weapons, invented new technologies and attracted tourists to swim along its beaches and visit its historical sites.

That vision remains a work in progress.

Social changes have galloped ahead much faster than most Saudis expected. After Prince Mohammed deprived the once-feared religious police of the power to impose their version of moral austerity on people, women were granted the right to drive, restrictions on their dress were loosened, and a new government body tasked with building an entertainment industry hosted concerts, pro wrestling events and monster truck rallies.

Prince Mohammed faces an uphill battle in diversifying the Saudi economy away from its supreme dependence on oil. But high global prices caused by the war in Ukraine have left him flush, enabling the kingdom’s huge sovereign wealth fund to expand its investments abroad, including a new pro golf circuit.

Prince Mohammed’s critics accuse him of using such investments to distract from rights abuses at home and abroad. Despite a cease-fire that has temporarily reduced the level of violence, the kingdom remains bogged down in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has fueled one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Political repression within Saudi Arabia has expanded, with activists, critics and clerics detained, barred from traveling abroad and prosecuted on charges that human rights groups say have been frequently trumped up.

When Mr. Biden entered the White House, the Khashoggi murder still loomed, and Prince Mohammed had every reason to brace for a stormy relationship — not least because the prince had been particularly chummy with President Donald J. Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and adviser.

Initially, Mr. Biden had little interest in the kingdom, wanting to reach a new agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program and accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, the Saudis’ primary commodity.

Mr. Biden was also hostile to Prince Mohammed, declining to back away from his “pariah” comment and refusing to speak with him, insisting that the president’s counterpart was the king.

The Saudis also had policy complaints.

They grimaced at the United States’ insistence on negotiating with Iran, fearing it would empower their regional nemesis. And they feared that the historical American commitment to Saudi security had waned, especially as the Houthis, enabled by Iran, accelerated drone and missile attacks on Saudi cities and oil facilities.

It smarted as well that Prince Mohammed seemed to get no credit for the kingdom’s social changes, nor for his own efforts to avert regional conflict, including starting talks with the Iranians in Baghdad.

The feeling of neglect grew after the invasion of Ukraine, when administration officials hoped the kingdom would join efforts to isolate President Vladimir Putin of Russia and increase oil production to ease prices.

Dennis Ross, who worked for a number of presidents and is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the message he heard from a range of Saudis during a recent visit to the kingdom was: “Whenever the U.S. wants something from us, they don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and expect us to respond. But when we have a concern, we call and nobody answers.”

In an interview with The Atlantic in April, when asked if Mr. Biden misunderstood him, Prince Mohammed responded: “Simply, I do not care.”

He said neglecting Saudi Arabia would be bad for Mr. Biden and could be a boon for China, with which the kingdom has been building ties.

Recently, relations between the White House and Saudi Arabia were so strained that analysts described them with romance metaphors.

Mr. Ross compared the Saudis’ feelings to those of a “jilted lover” who wonders, “why do you treat us this way?”

“The U.S.-Saudi relationship, if it were a marriage, would be in deep need of counseling,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute.

In an opinion article in The Washington Post about his Saudi trip, Mr. Biden did not mention Prince Mohammed by name (but did mention Mr. Khashoggi) and said his goal was to discuss energy, regional security and Iran with Arab leaders, including from Saudi Arabia.

For their part, the Saudis announced that Mr. Biden and Prince Mohammed would hold “official talks.” During them, Mr. Biden is likely to find an assertive leader who knows he has something the United States needs and wants to receive something in return.

This could include progress on a more formal security guarantee or cooperation in realms beyond oil, said Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The Saudis want to be treated as a U.S. partner, and today U.S. partners talk with the U.S. not just about security and oil but also about technology, climate and energy,” she said.

Even if the visit goes well, such cooperation takes time to develop. But for Prince Mohammed, she said, just getting Mr. Biden to Saudi Arabia amounted to “a triumph.”

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