Who Wins from Biden’s Saudi Visit? MBS, Trump—But, Quietly, DeSantis
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I’ve spent the last few days canvassing sources who are deeply enmeshed in Middle East politics about the significance of Joe Biden’s recent visit to the region. (Some of these sources are people who informed my reporting for Kushner, Inc. about all the risky foreign policy-making they saw going on in plain sight during the Trump administration in the region—policy that now appears to have borne fruit with Jared Kushner obtaining a $2 billion investment from the Saudi Public Investment fund and with LIV, the new Saudi-backed golf tour, being played at Trump’s Bedminster golf course. Kushner has said there was no quid pro quo for his foreign policy-making.)
The universal consensus among my sources was that whatever was said or not said about Jamal Khashoggi, the visit was an unmitigated triumph for MBS, who hosted the meeting, and that it was not clear if the U.S. got anything at all out of it.
Princeton Professor of Near Eastern Studies Bernard Haykel, who was in the kingdom at the time of the visit, told me, “MBS brought all the Arab leaders there, showing he had the convening power, and he is now a major [global] figure. And the Americans acknowledged that. I don't think there were any concrete agreements [about oil]… Essentially, it was a re-set of U.S.-Saudi relations.”
One source with knowledge told me that behind-the-scenes deals had been struck about oil production long before Biden’s visit was announced. “All that was already worked out,” the source said. “The announcement about more oil production will happen when the Saudis want it to happen, possibly at the next OPEC meeting.” Note—not when the U.S. wants the announcement to happen. As the unfortunate fist-bump between Biden and MBS seemed to signify, the U.S. does not have the upper hand with the Saudi Crown Prince at the moment.
The first-bump heard around the world. (Photo by Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Now that the meeting with Biden has happened on MBS’s terms and on MBS’s territory, it’s not even clear, say my sources, that MBS is much concerned about Biden. My sources agree the Saudis expect Biden will drown politically in disastrous mid-terms, and so sources say the Saudis are hoping and preparing for the return of Republicans in power. Which Republicans will return to power, however, the Saudis are not sure, say my sources. In other words, don’t believe the Saudis are praying for another Trump presidency just because you see the LIV tournament being played at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster and billions pouring into Jared Kushner’s investment fund. I am told by a senior political advisor in the region that some influential Saudis have also been quietly talking to Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
“The [Saudis] are trying to build bridges with DeSantis because their assumption is that, if Trump doesn't run, DeSantis will—and DeSantis would have a good chance of winning,” this person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. (A current poll out of Michigan puts Trump and DeSantis neck and neck for the 2024 nomination. If both men run, the Saudis would be hedged either way.)
The advisor continued, “Their view is that Trump [is] a mixed bag. He's their mixed bag. But Trump means instability for them. That’s because he changes his mind. He does things that are impulsive. So, yes, he's impressed by them [and] that’s good in their minds and they'll have access to him, but they’re not sure he is going to be the next president. And so they’re going to be a little careful.”
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