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Biden reportedly to visit Saudi Arabia, which he once vowed to make a ‘pariah’

But the president told reporters Friday that he has ‘no direct plans at the moment,’ stressing instead the importance of engaging with Mideast nations

President Biden speaks from the South Court Auditorium in the White House complex in Washington on June 1, 2022. (Susan Walsh/AP)

President Biden is planning to visit Saudi Arabia later this month, a remarkable departure from his vow as a presidential candidate to treat the country as a “pariah” state, according to three administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of a trip not yet announced.

On Friday, Biden delivered remarks on the strong jobs report from May and faced questions about the upcoming trip. He declined to confirm it, saying, “I have no direct plans at the moment” and instead stressed the importance of a visit to the region.

“I have been engaged in trying to work with how we can bring more stability and peace in the Middle East. And there is a possibility that I would be going to meet with both the Israelis and the Arabs. Some Arab countries at the time, including, I expect would be Saudi Arabia to be included in that if I did go,” he said.

The president’s possible trip to Saudi Arabia follows broader efforts by his administration to build ties with the oil-rich nation to reduce the price of gas in the United States, which has been sharply higher in recent months.

A stop in Saudi Arabia is expected to be added to Biden’s overseas trip this month, when he will travel to Israel, Germany and Spain, the officials said.

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia ruptured after the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of the Saudi government. American intelligence has concluded that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto leader of the kingdom, ordered the killing of Khashoggi, which occurred inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

“We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” Biden said of Saudi Arabia during a Democratic presidential candidates debate in 2019.

He added that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

Now Biden’s trip is likely to raise fresh doubts about the administration’s promise to keep human rights at the center of its foreign policy, given Saudi Arabia’s history of abuses, particularly toward women.

Pressed about his vow to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, Biden said Friday: “I’m not going to change my view on human rights, but as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace. If I can, peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”

During the trip, the president is expected to meet with Mohammed, the officials said, a face-to-face visit that is the culmination of half a dozen discreet visits to the kingdom over the past two years by the president’s top Middle East adviser, Brett McGurk, and by his special envoy for energy affairs, Amos Hochstein.

The two men traveled again to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last week to advance a range of issues, including a presidential visit and an increase in oil production amid rising energy prices and inflation that have hampered the president’s approval ratings, said a U.S. official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic details.

The decision about whether the president should visit to the crown prince divided members of the Biden administration, many of whom preferred to keep the autocracy at a distance after former president Donald Trump’s remarkably close rapport with the kingdom, a relationship that infuriated human rights advocates.

But advocates for keeping close ties with Riyadh ultimately won out after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

The conflict’s impact on oil and gas prices exacerbated the Biden administration’s concerns about its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which had repeatedly rebuffed U.S. requests to increase oil production.

A meeting with Mohammed was eventually seen as a necessary act of realpolitik to lower energy prices and inflation, despite Biden’s campaign promise to further isolate Riyadh. Whether the move will substantially lower the price of oil is far from clear.

Asked about such a meeting, Biden said: “Look, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here. What I want to do is see to it that we diminish the likelihood that there’s a continuation of this, some of the senseless wars between Israel and the Arab nations. And that’s what I’m focused on."

The member nations of OPEC+ announced Thursday that the group would increase production by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August, a modest acceleration of plans that were already in motion to reverse lower production related to the pandemic. The commitment to boost production came amid pressure from the White House for OPEC+ to do more to fill the gap created by sanctions on Russia. But the decision is seen by many energy analysts as having only a modest impact, and whether further production increases will occur over the summer remains unclear.