What to Watch as Biden Visits Mideast Gulf

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US President Joe Biden might be visiting Israel first on his tour of the Middle East this week, but the world will be paying greater attention to his shorter visit to Saudi Arabia for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit on Jul. 15-16.

During his visit to the Red Sea city of Jeddah, where the six-member GCC will hold its summit, Biden is scheduled to meet with Saudi King Salman and, for the first time, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Meeting the crown prince, the kingdom's de-facto leader, will mark a profound change in the position of the US president, who described Saudi Arabia as a "pariah" during his campaign for the White House.

The Saudis have also been frustrated by Biden's emphasis on diversifying away from fossil fuels — at least until Russia's invasion of Ukraine triggered a global energy crisis.

Biden is due to arrive in Jeddah from Tel Aviv late on Friday. Given the sensitivities around the visit, US officials have stressed that the president will only be there to attend a summit of Gulf Arab leaders.

"The GCC summit helps to cement whatever they're agreeing to during the trip to Israel and that package that is brought to Jeddah. There are many unknowns and many twist and turns still occurring," says Theodore Karasik, a senior analyst at Gulf State Analytics in Washington.

Recognition of Crown Prince

One of Riyadh's top priorities from the Biden visit will be to secure more cooperation from Washington in addressing its security concerns, but it also wants to see greater recognition of Crown Prince Mohammed as the kingdom's de facto leader.

Biden will be in the same room as the crown prince, commonly referred to as MBS, which could result in images of the two leaders shaking hands.

At home, this could put the US president in an awkward position. Following the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, a US intelligence report concluded that the crown prince had ordered the capture or killing of the Saudi journalist.

When asked whether Biden would meet with Crown Prince Mohammed, US officials were careful to frame the visit as a "bilateral" meeting between the US president and King Salman.

Presidential interactions with world leaders are "very carefully managed," said Marti Flacks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "I would expect the White House to spend a lot of time thinking about that and trying to manage it."

So far, there are no details about Biden's schedule in Jeddah — apart from the possibility of a joint Saudi-US press conference after Saturday's Gulf summit. It's unclear which officials would speak at the press conference.

Oil Supply and Opec-Plus

Although oil prices have retreated from their recent highs on fears of a global economic slowdown, they remain around $100 per barrel. The Biden administration would like to see them fall further to help lower US gasoline prices and ease domestic political pressures ahead of mid-term elections in November.

It remains to be seen to what extent Biden will address oil prices at the summit. Asked whether he would request more oil production from Saudi Arabia, Biden recently said that he wouldn't but added that all Gulf state leaders would realize it's in their own best interest to increase output.

"I think they want to do everything they can to reassure the public that they're trying to act on lowering energy prices," said Ben Cahill of the CSIS.

In recent weeks, there has been an intense focus on the issue of spare oil production capacity in the Mideast Gulf states.

Numerous media reports quoting Western industry experts have warned that — at a time when Russian oil exports are being targeted by Western sanctions — there is very little spare capacity, arguing that Gulf states would raise output if they could do so.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the only two producers with meaningful spare capacity that could be brought to market swiftly. Energy Intelligence estimates their combined spare capacity at roughly 2.5 million barrels per day.

US officials appear to be aware that spare capacity exists, but also know that there is limited appetite to draw on it and use up the only remaining supply buffer.

"We do believe there is a capacity for further steps that could be taken," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told a press conference on Monday, adding that it would ultimately be up to Opec countries to decide on what steps to take next.

This would seem to rule out the possibility of an announcement being made during Biden's visit involving unilateral production increases by Gulf states.

Opec-plus states — including Russia — are due to hold their next ministerial meeting on Aug. 3. So far, there are no clear proposals as to what policy the alliance will pursue from September when its 2020 agreement on production cuts will have run its course.

Energy Intelligence understands that one option for Opec-plus might be to adhere to the alliance's August production quotas for another month.

It's clear, however, that close ties between Saudi Arabia and Russia — especially on oil market matters — will remain a thorny issue for the administration and for the West. "The trend is likely to continue," said Karasik.

Regional Security Arrangements

Regional security is expected to be the overarching theme of Biden's upcoming trip and the first stop in Israel is likely to focus mainly on further integrating the country into the region.

Insiders say this is unlikely to include normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel at this point, despite pragmatic communications between the two countries.

Discussions about the challenge that Iran poses to regional security will be high on Saudi Arabia's agenda for the discussions with Biden. The kingdom's leaders want to see greater support from the US with regard to Riyadh's arch enemy, especially at a time when Saudi oil facilities are being targeted by Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

Comments made on Monday by Sullivan suggest that Washington might be willing to take a firmer stance against Tehran.

Sullivan said the US believed Iran was preparing to provide Russia with large numbers of drones, including some that are armed.

However, plans to build a regional Nato-type force to counter Tehran are unlikely to find acceptance, with countries like Oman and Qatar already rejecting the idea.

Sullivan also said that the US does not plan to change its stance — struck during the early phase of the Biden administration — against selling "offensive" weapons to Saudi Arabia.

"We've reversed the blank check policy that we inherited from the previous administration, while continuing to work with Saudi Arabia on critical priorities for the American people," he said.

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