President Joe Biden has been dragged grudgingly into tighter connections with Saudi Arabia's king-in-waiting, compelled to reconsider a standoffish posture by Russia's invasion of Ukraine as the US attempts to contain surging oil prices.
The issue is that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman isn't willing to cooperate.
According to a dozen sources familiar with the discussion, the US is relaxing its stance after months of efforts by some top administration officials to persuade a hesitant Trump that ignoring the de facto Saudi king was impeding U.S. foreign policy aims. That endeavour was given new fuel by the need to isolate Moscow. Russia's assault, according to one official, is a paradigm-shifting act that has changed the way the US views Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is the Middle East's economic superpower, and it has long been a political heavyweight in the region's affairs, as well as a major influence in OPEC+, an oil-exporters' cartel and Russia's formidable alliance. It is also a major purchaser of American armaments.
The reversal is partly an acknowledgement that during his presidential campaign, Biden pushed himself into a position by calling Saudi Arabia a "pariah," a reflection of his horror over the 2018 murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi and a desire to distance himself from his predecessor's warmer connections. Donald Trump sent his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to work closely with MBS, as the prince is known, frequently at the expense of his own top ambassador.
Conversations with people in Riyadh and Washington paint a picture of a government that understands it needs to continue a decades-old cooperation that ensures US clout in the world's top energy-exporting area while simultaneously wanting to punish Prince Mohammed, 36, for his human rights record.
According to three sources familiar with the situation, the two sides were attempting to set up a call between Biden and the crown prince for the first time, but tensions were now so high that it would take time.
The White House National Security Council's spokeswoman said Monday that the president's formal request for a call with the crown prince was "categorically incorrect," and that the Saudis had rebuffed him.
Emily Horne, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, added: "On February 9th, the president spoke with King Salman. They established an assertive bilateral agenda on climate, security, and energy cooperation during that call. Our employees have been involved at every level since that crucial call. Given this regular and continuous contact, there has been no talk of additional calls at the president's level."
The Saudis agree with the president speaking with his counterpart, the king, according to a US official who did not want to be identified. Biden has also been receptive to discussions with Prince Mohammed, according to the official, who added that if the crown prince had visited Rome during the G-20 summit in October, Biden would have met with him.