Biden is trying to lure Saudi Arabia's crown prince away from China with lucrative promises, despite once threatening to make him a 'pariah'

Biden and Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) fist bumping.
US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.Bandar Algaloud/Reuters

It had looked like President Joe Biden's patience with Saudi Arabia's ambitious and impulsive de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had run out.

The Saudis had infuriated the US last year by siding with Russia to cut oil production in a move that Biden feared would spike domestic inflation.

Biden told Saudi Arabia there would be "consequences" for their decision, echoing campaign trail rhetoric in which he had pledged to make the crown prince a "pariah" over the assassination of dissident Jamal al-Khashoggi.

But Crown Prince Mohammed's decision to draw closer to China, the US' arch global rival, has shifted attitudes in Washington — and it looks like Biden has made a u-turn.

The US has replaced its threats with lucrative contracts for the crown prince as part of a high stakes power game being waged over dominance of the region.

Biden last weekend dispatched his national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, to Saudi Arabia, for discussions with Saudi officials. He was the most prominent US official to visit the kingdom since Biden himself made the trip last summer.

Sullivan, Biden
Joe Biden walks with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (L) to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, July 27, 2021.SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

"For the Biden administration, challenging China's rising influence in the Middle East and other parts of the world is a high priority," Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Washington DC based consultancy Gulf State Analytics told Insider.

In an indication of the rapidly-shifting power dynamics in the region, Sullivan offered the Saudis lucrative infrastructure investment to improve links between railways and ports in Gulf states and India, one of the world's fastest growing economies and a geopolitical rival of China, reports say,

"This is part of a US led effort to push back against Beijing. The United States might not always make that point clear or say it directly, but everyone knows that that is the case," said Cafiero.

Mohammed bin Salman's power play

At the heart of Crown Prince Mohammed's diplomatic strategy is a belief that US global power and Washington DC's commitment to the Middle East is waning, analysts say. 

To that end, the Saudis are seeking to broaden their alliances. They are pulling away from the US, and drawing closer to rival powers, including Russia and China.

Strengthening ties with China, despite the alarm it causes in Washington DC, is a key priority in Riyadh.

China is the world's second biggest economy, and the Saudis are seeking trillions in investment as they attempt to diversify their economy away from fossil fuels.

Last year, Crown Prince Mohammed and Xi agreed to deepen their cooperation across a range of economic and security issues. China has invested heavily in infrastructure in the Middle East as part of its "Belt and Road" initiative.

Xi's lavish welcome contrasted with the muted reception given to Biden when he'd visited the kingdom in July.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the crown prince believes that by playing rival superpowers against each other, he'll be able to secure valuable concessions from the US in areas such as nuclear technology.

China scored a huge victory in its bid to supplant the US as the region's power broker  in March when it negotiated a peace deal between longtime foes Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Cafiero said that the Biden administration was taking a sanguine view of the China-brokered Saudi-Iran rapprochement in the hope broader regional stability would be to everyone's advantage.

"Some officials in Washington feel threatened by the fact that China, as opposed to the US or any other western country, played this role in the restoration of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations this year," he added.

An issue that would likely have been at the top of Sullivan's agenda was the increasingly close alliance between China and the Gulf states on security and defense.

Chinese President Xi Jinping holds talks with Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud at the royal palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 8, 2022.Yue Yuewei/Xinhua via Getty Images

Recent Pentagon leaks showed that China's plans to build a military base in the UAE were going ahead, despite the objections of US officials.

Insider reported last month of concerns that Chinese surveillance tech was being used by the Saudis and other Gulf states in so-called "smart city" projects.

Despite Sullivan's efforts, the Saudis are unlikely to abandon their tightrope strategy of balancing between rival superpowers any time soon. Maintaining good ties with fellow fossil fuels giant Russia and burgeoning superpower China, remain central to the kingdom's goals, said Cafiero.

"I think if the Biden administration is being realistic about the situation, there is an understanding that Saudi Arabia is determined to assert its independence and autonomy from the West," he said.

But the infrastructure plans Sullivan unveiled show that the US remains determined to play a key role in the region and smooth over past disputes. And the Saudis will likely continue to seek good relations with Washington, DC, said Cafiero.

"It is important to note that Saudi Arabia is not seeking to burn its bridges with the United States. The Saudis do not want to abandon their decades old partnership with Washington," he said.

Read the original article on Business Insider