President Joe Biden is considering a trip to Saudi Arabia, which would likely put him face to face with the Saudi crown prince, whom he previously despised as a murderer.
According to a person familiar with White House planning, the White House is considering a trip to Saudi Arabia that would include a meeting with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), as well as Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. To discuss the yet-to-be-finalized plans, the individual spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It comes at a time when overarching US strategic interests in oil and security have prompted the government to reconsider the arms-length approach to the Saudis that Biden promised as a presidential candidate.
Any encounter between Biden and de facto Saudi ruler Prince Mohammed bin Salman during Biden’s Middle East journey might provide some respite for American gasoline consumers, who are suffering as a global oil supply scarcity drives up prices. If the Saudi visit happens, Biden is anticipated to meet with Prince Mohammed, who is widely called to by his initials, MBS, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
A meeting like this might also help to relieve one of the most tense and uncertain moments in a cooperation that has lasted more than three-quarters of a century between Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and the United States, the world’s top economic and military power.
However, it risks humiliating the US president, who threatened in 2019 to make a “pariah” of the Saudi royal family following the assassination and mutilation of U.S.-based writer Jamal Khashoggi, a critical critic of many of Prince Mohammed’s cruel tactics.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre refused to say if Biden will visit Saudi Arabia. At the end of June, Biden is likely to fly to Europe. He might include a visit in Saudi Arabia on his itinerary to meet with Prince Mohammed, Saudi King Salman, and other officials. Should his future trip to Saudi Arabia include a stop in Israel, the president is likely to do so.
Brett McGurk, the NSC Middle East coordinator, and Amos Hochstein, a senior advisor for energy security at the State Department, were recently in the area, according to the White House. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Saudi colleague over the phone on Monday.
McGurk and Hochstein, as well as Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen, have visited Saudi Arabia many times to discuss energy supplies, the Biden administration’s efforts to resurrect the Iran nuclear agreement, and Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which was just eased by a cease-fire.
The political risks of giving his hand to Prince Mohammed, according to Biden, include the possibility of a humiliating last-minute public rebuke from a still-offended crown prince renowned for domineering, harsh acts. Since becoming crown prince in 2017, Prince Mohammed has detained his own royal uncles and relatives, as well as Saudi human rights activists, and is suspected of ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, according to the US intelligence community. Saudi Arabia rejects the crown prince’s involvement.
Despite this, Biden was on hand to welcome Prince Mohammed at the G20 conference in Rome in October, but he did not show up.
And any retreat by Biden from his ardent human-rights promises — during his campaign, Biden promised that Saudi authorities would “face the price” for Khashoggi’s murder — risks further frustration among Democratic voters. They’ve seen Biden struggle to carry through his domestic program in the face of a strong GOP Senate majority.
Democrats are becoming less loud in their demands that the United States take a tough stance against Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. Gas prices near all-time highs are jeopardizing their chances in the November midterm elections.
Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia, a longtime congressional opponent of the Saudi monarchy, stated in an email that the US “should reevaluate its unquestioning support for Saudi Arabia.” He and other Democrats, on the other hand, aren’t openly advising Biden that he shouldn’t meet with Prince Mohammed.
Lawmakers refer to Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to deviate from an oil production cap negotiated primarily between the Saudi kingdom and oil-producing Russia, despite months of Western pressure. The output quota is exacerbateing oil supply shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the same time, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as Israel, have privately pushed Biden to seek to improve US-Saudi relations.
The restricted supply not only helps keep gas prices high for worldwide consumers, but it also helps Russia gain higher prices for the oil and gas it sells to support its invasion of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a visit to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, as speculation about a meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed intensified in Washington.
During the chill between Biden and the Saudi crown prince, frequent, friendly meetings between Saudi, Russian, and Chinese officials have heightened Western concerns that Saudi Arabia is abandoning Western strategic objectives.
For decades, the US has assured that US or allied aircraft carriers, troops, trainers, and missile batteries are positioned to defend Saudi Arabia and its oil reserves, as well as other Gulf states. The military commitment understands that the United States’ strategic objectives include a secure global oil market and a Gulf counterbalance to Iran.
“Real guarantees that it would be firmly linked with the United States globally, and not drift toward or hedge by attempting to establish equivalent connections with Russia and China,” the US is seeking from Saudi Arabia. “It’s not simply about energy,” Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, remarked. Shapiro is a supporter of bilateral Abraham deals, which have allowed certain Arab governments and Israel forge closer ties.
“The US wants some confidence that it would deliver those security assurances and that it will have a true partner that will be like a partner,” said Shapiro, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for their part, perceive Biden as the latest in a long line of US presidents to disregard the US military’s long-standing guardian role in the Gulf, as Washington seeks to de-emphasize Middle East issues in order to focus on China.
The United States’ decision last year to place responsibility of its soldiers in Israel under US Central Command may allay Gulf security concerns. According to Shapiro, this effectively boosts cooperation between Israel’s US-equipped military and Arab troops operating under the US military cover.
Last month, Deputy Saudi Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman paid a visit to CENTCOM headquarters in Florida. One of the key themes discussed was regional cooperation, which included, according to Shapiro, the prospect of coordinating the Middle East’s air defense capabilities.
Last month, Blinken and Jake Sullivan, White House national security advisor, met with the Saudi defense officer. Sullivan stated that he discussed energy. In April, CIA Director William Burns paid a visit to Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed.
Officials in the Biden administration scoff at the notion that a stronger relationship with Saudi Arabia is just about getting the Saudis to help lower petrol costs. Following McGurk and Hochstein’s recent trips to the area, Jean-Pierre stated last week that the allegation that the White House is pressuring Saudi Arabia to produce more oil “is simply false” and “a misunderstanding of both the complexity of that subject and our multifarious interactions with the Saudis.”
“The president’s words,” she said on Wednesday, referring to Biden’s promise that the Saudis will “pay a price.”