Examining the motivations for Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia

President Biden moved on to Saudi Arabia Friday evening after meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Randa Slim, of the Middle East Institute, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • William Brangham:

    For more on President Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia, we turn to Randa Slim. She's with the Middle East Institute, which is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

    Randa, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    You well remember candidate Joe Biden was very critical of the crown prince, calling the kingdom a pariah state for their crackdown on dissent and for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And now we see President Biden, as president, fist-bumping the crown prince. What do you make of that dichotomy?

  • Randa Slim, Middle East Institute:

    I mean, I think it is President Biden meeting the reality.

    And it was words were maybe easy to make during an election campaign. But, definitely, because of the war in Ukraine, because — and what led — and what it led, in terms of increase in energy prices, President Biden is facing a reality at home five months before the election of high inflation, high gas prices.

    And he's hoping or betting on the Saudis and the Emiratis to increase their oil production, hoping that that will help bring down gas prices at home. And I think that is somehow a — it's a bet or a hope that is not totally true, partly because price — energy prices are determined by — not only by a president asking the Saudis to pump more oil, but also they are determined by Saudis, by Russians, by Emiratis making this decision, in terms of tapping their supplies, based on what works for them and for their economic and strategic interests.

    So it's not clear to me that, one, they have the spare capacity that can influence the price of oil on the market, as Nick said in his remarks, but, also, I'm not sure whether the Saudis and the Emiratis will be willing to go ahead with the ask of the president, if that ask is counter to their own economic, strategic interests.

  • William Brangham:

    So do you think that the criticism that the president received in advance of this trip is just a lot of hot air? Or do you think that there is a substantive critique to be made that the president maybe ought not to have gone and done a formal presidential visit to the kingdom?

  • Randa Slim:

    I think he ought not have made the remarks he made during the election campaign by promising to put Saudi Arabia — to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state on the global scene, because, I mean, he must know, as a candidate, as a former V.P., that Saudi Arabia is an important country in the region, that we have a lot of issues that we need to have — we need to have their cooperation, in terms whether it's energy, whether it's regional security.

    Look, the criticism is fair, partly because — again, because of this mismatch between words and action. And that's a longstanding criticism of American foreign policy, that — especially in the Arab region, but all over the world, that, when it comes — when push come to shove, interests always trump our values.

  • William Brangham:

    President Biden has also made a good deal about trying to normalize and harmonize relationships between these different Arab states and Israel.

    How do you judge thus far this success on that front?

  • Randa Slim:

    You know, I mean, I would say that both, whether it's the Trump administration and now the Biden administration, I think they are trying to ride a bandwagon that was already in motion.

    Even the Trump administration, which heralded the Abrahamic Accords, I think the countries of the region, be it UAE, Bahrain, Israel, Morocco, the other signatories to the Abrahamic Accord, even Saudi Arabia, have their own interest in having relations with Israel that are not necessarily dictated by the United States.

    I mean, it is partly against Iran. But also it's partly about survival of their regime. And it's partly about securing technological cooperation, technological know-how and economic know-how from Israel.

    So these interests of these countries are some — are the ones that are dictating their moves towards these, and that dictated their moves towards Accords, Abrahamic Accords, and that will continue to control the tempo of this harmonization between Israel and Arab countries.

  • William Brangham:

    And, Randa Slim, just briefly, President Biden has also promised that he will never allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.

    Is it your sense that the other Arab nations see the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran as severely as the president and as Israel does?

  • Randa Slim:

    No, I don't think so.

    Going all the way back to 2015 and before that, there was always a disagreement, or, let's say, a different perspective, in terms of priorities, when it comes to Iran. The U.S. and Israel denying Iran nuclear a weapon was their first priority, whereas, for the Arab countries, their first priorities was ballistic missiles program of Iran, the Iran proxy network in the Arab region.

    And they always felt and bet that the United States and Israel will one day take care of the Iranian nuclear program. And that partly explained why it was never a priority, whereas they felt that they were abandoned by America, especially during the negotiation in 2015 with Iran, because it did not stress enough their concerns in the deal, meaning the ballistic missiles program of Iran and Iran's proxy network in the Arab region.

  • William Brangham:

    Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute, thank you so much.

  • Randa Slim:

    Thank you.

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