Ukraine War Pushes Biden Into Awkward Compromise on Saudi Arabia, Venezuela

When Joe Biden was running for president, he pledged to make Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a "pariah" as punishment for his alleged role in the assassination of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and for the country's poor human rights record, including a brutal, seven-year-long war in Yemen.

Now, three years and a major conflict in Europe later, the president appears to be turning his back on that promise, as he prepares to visit Saudi Arabia in July and meet the Crown Prince.

It would be the first time since taking office that Biden will directly engage with the prince, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler and the man who the CIA concluded had ordered the murder of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2018. Saudi authorities have always denied the Crown Prince, known by his initials MBS, had any role in the journalist's death.

So why is Biden now abandoning his "pariah" policy towards the prince?

"Events on the ground in Ukraine and in Iran. Foreign policy, despite high principles, tends to be dictated by events on the ground," David Ottaway, Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center, tells Newsweek.

"One of those events is the war in Ukraine, and the other is the looming confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program."

As the price of gasoline skyrockets, fueled by the war in Ukraine, and inflation hits American consumers hard, the U.S. is turning to Saudi Arabia, the country with the world's second largest reserves of crude oil, in hopes of lowering gas prices.

"There are other potential sources of oil out there, and there could have been a deal with Iran that would have gotten more barrels back on the market," Randy Bell, director of the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, tells Newsweek.

"There was some hint of a relationship with Venezuela, but that seemed unpalatable for a number of reasons. So there are options, but none of them are, frankly, as useful as Saudi Arabia, simply because of the amount of production that they have and the amount of capacity they have to produce."

The stalling of negotiations over the revival of the Iran nuclear agreement has also made Saudi Arabia a potentially key partner for the U.S. to ensure the stability of the region, says Ottaway.

"It looks like the nuclear agreement is not being revived, will not be revived, in which case Saudi Arabia becomes a lot more important to any kind of military action that Biden may take to halt their nuclear weapons program," he tells Newsweek.

Biden Crown Prince Saudi Arabia
This photo montage shows a picture of U.S. President Joe Biden opposite Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed. Biden is expected to visit Saudi Arabia in July, meeting the prince for the first time since taking office. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP;Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images & Canva

This U-turn in the White House's policy towards Saudi Arabia is already bearing fruit: Last week, the kingdom agreed to an extension of the truce in Yemen and OPEC announced it will increase oil production—two measures that please Washington.

But the bargain the White House has made, opening up to Saudi Arabia while punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, appears morally tricky for Biden, and has stirred outrage among human rights activists and the surviving family of Khashoggi, who was a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia's ruling family.

But Bell said it was "inevitable" to engage with the Crown Prince.

"Once you're in office, in the presidency, you need to deal with Saudi Arabia," Bell tells Newsweek. "Ultimately, Saudi Arabia is a crucial player in the global energy system and therefore in the global economy. And so if you want to be able to make changes or manage the global economy, a relationship with Saudi Arabia is crucial.

"And so it's really just a reversion to what we all sort of expected would be necessary. You know, we didn't necessarily think it would be under this context, with oil prices at this level and the war in Ukraine, but ultimately, you need Saudi Arabia and OPEC on board if you're going to increase production, or as we saw in the Trump administration, if you're going to cut production."

Biden has been defending the Saudi outreach, saying it will bring more stability to the region.

"I have been engaged in trying to work with how we can bring more stability and peace in the Middle East and there is a possibility that I would be going to meet with both the Israelis and some Arab countries at the time—including, I expect, would be Saudi Arabia, would be included in that if I did go," the president said.

Venezuela's Oil For Europe, But Not For the U.S.

The same inevitability marks the attempts to reach out to President Nicolas Maduro's regime in Venezuela.

The country has faced heavy U.S. sanctions for over 15 years, including those on oil sales imposed by former President Donald Trump in response to Maduro's growing authoritarianism.

In May, Biden allowed Chevron to open talks with Maduro's government, lifting sanctions that have paused such discussions, in exchange for the Venezuelan president's commitment to open a dialogue with the political opposition.

"It's not so much a straightforward trade for giving relief to a dictator in exchange for oil," David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America tells Newsweek.

"A policy change has been needed for quite some time. The problem here is that this policy of sanctions did not bring Maduro's government down, like the Trump administration thought it would happen, it actually seems to have undermined the opposition even more."

But an overture to Venezuela was met with hostility by both Democrats and Republicans, who have condemned any attempt at engaging with Maduro's regime. The oil embargo on Venezuela remains in place, although the U.S. has recently allowed Italy's Eni and Spain's Repsol to resume oil-for-debt swaps, officially halted in 2020 by Trump.

Since then, Venezuela has continued selling its oil, thanks to help from Iran and Russia, to China. Maduro has stayed in power, proving wrong Trump's prediction that the sanctions would overturn the leader.

However, easing sanctions on Venezuela without promoting democratic reforms in the country might be perilous for the U.S., even more than cozying up to the Saudi Crown Prince—and the opposition such a move has met in the U.S. suggests the situation won't change any time soon.

Ultimately, neither Saudi Arabia or Venezuela are likely to be able to put enough oil on the market to bring down prices quickly enough to counteract sliding Russian oil output.

Maduro Venezuela
Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, leaves a press conference in Miraflores Palace on February 17, 2021 in Caracas, Venezuela. Biden has allowed Italy's Eni and Spain's Repsol to swap oil for Venezuelan debt. Carolina Cabral/Getty Images