I’M fond of the term “realpolitik”. Dictionaries broadly define it as politics based on practical objectives rather than ideals. As working maxims go, I’ve always found it a handy explainer for the way so much of politics is conducted or carried out in our complex world.

That said, some would argue – and with real justification – that it’s also a term that often enables political leaders to comfortably accommodate double standards.

You need look no further for a prime example of this than US President Joe Biden’s forthcoming visit to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – or MBS, as he’s often known.

It wasn’t that long ago that Biden, while on the presidential campaign trail, pledged to make the kingdom a “pariah” because of its appalling human rights record.

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True to his word, no sooner was Biden ensconced in the White House than relations with Riyadh were frozen and weapons supplies to both Saudi and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were cut.

But then suddenly the US leader appeared to embark on what critics have condemned as flip-flop or U-turn diplomacy, once again apparently seeking to make amends with MBS, which will culminate in this month’s meeting.

So, what brought about Biden’s sudden change of mind? What was it that saw him one minute willing to release an intelligence report that found MBS culpable in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (below), but now sees the US president seeking rapprochement?

The National: Jamal Khashoggi

The short answer can be summed up in two words: oil and Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of its neighbour back in February was a game changer and since then energy prices have skyrocketed.

High demand from post-pandemic economic recovery as well as sanctions in place against Russia, Venezuela and Iran have only compounded the supply problem which in turn is causing higher energy prices and fuelling the inflation that poses the biggest economic and political challenge facing the Biden administration.

For Washington, the war in Ukraine and the rise in global oil prices have only underscored petrostate Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical centrality.

All of this has forced Biden to think again, taking on a very different perspective from when he first took office. To put this another way, a cold, hard realism has taken precedence over moral considerations – realpolitik has kicked in.

To dampen sky-high petrol prices ahead of the crucial US midterm elections in November, Biden is having once again to turn to a state he has tried hard to cold shoulder.

So, what of the rights and wrongs of such a move and what does it tell us about the Biden administration’s commitment to universal human rights?

The answer, of course, depends on who you ask. Some, rightly, will tell you that there’s nothing particularly new or startling about the US adopting double standards in its approach to international politics and human rights.

The National: President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting on migration at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles

Already in a recent letter to Biden, 13 human rights groups have warned that efforts to repair relations with Riyadh without human rights at the core, “are not only a betrayal of your campaign promises but will likely embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law”.

And there’s the rub, for the US in its rush to secure alternative supplies to Russian oil and gas must avoid replicating the mistakes of the past. Biden cannot just return to a business-as-usual set-up with Saudi, there must be a re-set of that relationship and conditions attached.

There is, after all, no shortage of conditions that Biden could insist on. These range from the release of political prisoners to the lifting of arbitrary travel bans on human rights defenders. He could insist too, for example, on an end to unlawful surveillance, state hostage taking, male guardianship over women and removal of discriminatory laws and practice to ensure women’s rights.

Tying some or all of these into any new bilateral relationship would ensure that MBS does not get a free ride. It’s worth remembering too that Riyadh doesn’t hold all the leverage cards here. For just as Biden needs MBS’s co-operation over oil and energy prices, so too does Riyadh when it comes to US security support to stand up to Iran.

“The war in Ukraine has been a blessing and a curse for the Gulf. They see America is back, not checking out and can mobilise when it wants to,” was how Sanam Vakil, a Gulf expert at Chatham House, recently summed it up. “The bad news for them is when the US mobilises for someone else, it’s a slap in the face.”

Ultimately, only the naivest would image that a global power like the US would opt for values over interests. That simply isn’t going to happen. In the realpolitik of today’s turbulent world, adopting such a position would be unsustainable.

That said, the opportunity to bring about political reform in a country like Saudi Arabia, while never easy, should not be entirely squandered on the altar of US interests.

Perennial sceptics of US foreign policy will, of course, with considerable justification, point to America’s poor track record on such things and dismiss such notions out of hand.

Western democracies’ reliance on oil-rich autocrats, they will argue, has always been something of a Faustian pact whereby they turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in exchange for whatever strategic or economic gains that best serve their interests. I would be the last to deny that.

But just because it was like this in the past does not absolve those same Western democracies from trying to do better. Neither does it excuse the international community from reminding the US how unacceptable it would be for it to repeat past mistakes when it comes to Saudi Arabia and human rights.

Difficult decisions need to be made as part of statecraft and one can recognise the realpolitik involved in Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia. But, as I said at the start, realpolitik works two ways and should not become an enabler of double standards.