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The White House has confirmed that President Joe Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia next month, where he is expected to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He’s the same prince Biden swore to make an outcast for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist.

The Biden administration is trying to frame this as a reset of US-Saudi relations, implying that the president is magnanimously abrogating the prince’s pariah status.

Don’t believe it. Biden’s attempt to isolate the prince was a dismal failure. No world leader of any significance has joined the US president in avoiding the Saudi heir to the throne: on the contrary, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Boris Johnson have all courted MBS, as the prince usually is. known.

If Biden is now making his way to the kingdom, it is because he desperately needs Saudi Arabia to increase its crude oil production to rein in prices which have soared since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. After weeks of intense solicitation from US officials, the Saudis agreed to increase production slightly, but not enough to drive prices down.

This allows MBS to appear generous without losing significant revenue. And with Biden now forced to advocate for more — he needs pump prices down before the midterm elections in November — it’s the prince, not the president, who will set the terms for any reset.

What MBS wants, above all, is contrition from Biden. That he basically got as soon as the White House announced the plans for the meeting. Saudis know that an American president can’t very well apologize to a foreign potentate, but it won’t take many detours to turn a handshake into a gesture of penance. The prince will be portrayed as mature and a statesman for rising above his guest’s previous insults.

Beyond the embarrassment of the moment, Biden should be grateful for the chance to escape the corner he painted himself in by refusing to deal directly with MBS after being sworn in last year. (The fact that he had little hesitation in speaking with other bloodstained tyrants only made his position more ridiculous.) Biden needs to be able to deal directly with the man running the country who is so vital to the people. American economic and geopolitical interests. Beyond that, MBS doesn’t need much from Biden, and what he does want is mostly in America’s best interest to give, anyway.

For decades, the House of Saud, as the royal family is known, may have depended on American weapons — and sometimes American armies — to protect themselves from their enemies. In addition to equipping the Saudi military with the best weapons petrodollars can buy and devoting substantial resources to protecting crucial shipping lanes for Saudi exports, the United States has stepped in to save the kingdom from invasion. by people like the Iraqi Saddam Hussein and protect him from evil. Iranian intentions.

Saddam is long gone, but the threat from Tehran hangs more and more over Riyadh: only a few months ago, rockets and missiles were launched on the Saudi capital by Iranian proxies in the north (in Iraq) and in the south (in Yemen) of the Kingdom. The attacks have been halted by a truce in Yemen, but MBS knows that at any time Iran can unleash its attack dogs on Saudi oil infrastructure and urban centers.

Russia and China may be able to sell the Saudi military hardware, but they are not in the same league as the US missile defense systems that stopped the rockets from hitting Riyadh. And since Moscow and Beijing are friends with the regime in Tehran, MBS will always be suspicious of their loyalty in the event of a Saudi-Iranian confrontation.

MBS will therefore want Biden to provide full reassurance that the kingdom can depend on the US security umbrella, literally and figuratively. He will also want unlimited access to American weapons. Biden has been hot and cold about it, first ending US military support for the Saudis in the war in Yemen and then endorsing the sale of missiles to Riyadh.

In Washington, where the memory of Khashoggi’s murder has not entirely faded, there will be some resistance to giving MBS carte blanche. But it shouldn’t be hard for Biden to persuade Congress that it’s a price worth paying for cheaper gas.

MBS will also want to be reassured that Biden’s eagerness to strike a nuclear deal with Iran will not give Tehran the license (and, upon the lifting of economic sanctions, vastly increased resources) to extend its influence to across the Middle East and use its proxies to lean even more heavily on Saudi Arabia.

There is a chance that this concern is moot, since the Iranian regime seems determined to sabotage the nuclear talks in Vienna by making impossible demands. But Biden will at least have to persuade the prince that, if a deal is struck, the United States will redouble its efforts to defend Saudi interests.

Having spoken to himself about this mess, it is now up to Biden to talk himself out of it. He already seems to be planning his next trip by praising the extension of the truce in Yemen. “Saudi Arabia has shown courageous leadership by taking early steps to endorse and implement the terms of the UN-led truce,” he said in a statement. He may have avoided mentioning MBS there, but the prince will have the final say when the president arrives in Riyadh.

More writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Saudi Arabia’s Oil Whisperer Leader Spills Some of His Secrets: Javier Blas

Saudi megaproject is big on hubris and impractical: Bobby Ghosh

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of Quartz and International Editor of Time.

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