How Long can MbS Continue to Play Hardball with Biden?

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

Sha'ban 29, 1443 2022-04-01

News & Analysis

by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 51, No. 2, Sha'ban, 1443)

It is a long-established tradition in the Middle East and West Asia to welcome and honour important guests by slaughtering a sheep or two, upon their arrival. Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) displaying characteristic dark humour, executed three people the day before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson landed in Riyadh. This was preceded by the execution of 81 other men in a single day on March 12. Even by the Saudis’ gory standards, this was unprecedented in scale.

And to rub it in, the Saudis sent the deputy governor of Riyadh to receive Johnson at the airport. There was a time when the entire ruling family led by the king would line up at the airport to receive a British prime minister. While times have changed, MbS may be pushing his luck too far by such antics.

He nurses a grudge against US President Joe Biden for calling him a ‘pariah’. MbS refused to pick up the phone to speak to Biden when the latter called last month asking for an increase in oil production. This came about following a sharp spike in gas prices at the pump as a result of US sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Biden is expected to visit Saudi Arabia next month to kiss and make up with MbS. While Russia’s invasion has had its effect far and wide, the medieval kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been a major beneficiary because of windfall profits. MbS is suddenly being courted after being shunned for three years because he ordered the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

Biden’s somersault and MbS playing hardball shows the hypocritical nature of politics. Neither is sincere in their posturing. For Biden it is merely a transactional relationship. This is the nature of US politics and has been for decades. As soon as he achieves his objective(s), Biden would drop MbS like a hot potato. The upstart Saudi crown prince knows that without American approval, he cannot become the future king of Saudi Arabia. Each is trying to use the other. Both personify evil.

Despite basking in the glory of high oil prices at the moment, MbS knows that the US has a lot more tools at its disposal, especially vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, to undermine his position. There are many contenders to the throne. Time is of the essence for MbS. If he is able to consolidate his position internally through mass executions and the exclusion of other contenders before his aging father, King Salman goes six feet under, he would present a fait accompli and become king. That still would not guarantee his hold on power if the Americans want to get rid of him.

David Hearst of the Middle East Eye wrote: “The Wall Street Journal reported that he [MbS] wants more US support for the war in Yemen, help with the Saudi nuclear programme, and legal immunity in the US against court actions by the likes of Saad al-Jabri, a former Saudi intelligence officer who alleged that the crown prince also tried to kill him.

“Two of those demands are possible. The third is not.” The bottom line for MbS, according to Hearst, is “legitimacy”, meaning the US must accept him as the future king, while Biden wants an increase in oil production. “It is not clear whether either will deliver,” concluded Hearst.

MbS has realized that the US is a waning superpower. There are not only other contenders—China and Russia—that are willing to court him, they are also not bothered about his brutal ways. No Russian or Chinese president, for instance, will call MbS a “pariah”, even if he is one. Let us be clear, the US also does not care about human rights. It uses these as a tool to exert pressure on rulers it wants to bring into compliance with its demands.

In order to thumb his nose at Biden, MbS has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Riyadh. Further, he has said he would consider selling some of the kingdom’s oil in yuans. Whether MbS would take such a step—the idea has been around since 2016—is yet to be seen but should this materialize, it would be a major blow to the dollar’s hegemony.

In 1973, Henry Kissinger persuaded then Saudi King Faisal to trade oil in dollars, hence the term petrodollars. The Americans have had a free ride for almost 50 years. The US continues to print paper money but the inflationary costs are spread globally. Its national debt now stands at $30 trillion, or 130% of its total GDP, the first time in history it has gone so high. Again, the costs are borne by people worldwide.

At present, MbS is acting tough but how long will it last? After all, he went to the steps of the plane to embrace and kiss Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in January 2021 after imposing a blockade on Qatar in July 2017 in a bid to bring it to its knees. Biden represents a much bigger entity, even it is in rapid decline.

One can visualize the following scenario. When Biden steps off the plane in Riyadh next month, MbS will greet him. Biden will whisper in his ear, “You are a pariah and a nasty creature but I won’t say it in public anymore!” MbS will grin but his thick lower lip will quiver to reflect his nervousness and displeasure.

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