The White House announced Tuesday that President Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia next month and meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, culminating months of discreet visits to the kingdom by White House officials and punctuating an intense internal debate over whether to validate a leader accused of numerous human rights violations.
Reflecting those internal divisions, the official White House statement on the trip — which will also include stops in Israel and the West Bank — notably omitted any mention of his plan to meet with the kingdom’s de facto leader, widely called MBS. The meeting, in contrast, was prominently mentioned in the announcement from the Saudi Embassy, which said the two men “will hold official talks that will focus on various areas of bilateral cooperation.”
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre, when asked Tuesday why the much-debated meeting was not included in the White House announcement, said Biden plans to see a variety of leaders. “Look, you know, the president is going to see over a dozen leaders on this trip,” she said. “Yes, we can expect the president to see the crown prince as well.”
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s leading oil producers at a time when Biden is fighting to slow the soaring cost of gas and a country that plays a central role in Middle East politics. Yet it is highly uncertain whether the visit will produce any breakthroughs that could alleviate the price Americans pay at the pump. Biden once promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” in part due to Mohammed’s role in the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of the Saudi government.
The Saudi visit, part of the broader July 13-16 trip to the Middle East, was controversial even among leaders of Biden’s own party. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told CNN on Tuesday that he has “mixed feelings” about it, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) added that the trip is a “really bad idea” and that Mohammed’s “bloodstain has not been cleansed.”
Biden himself, pressed recently about the apparent thawing of his approach to the kingdom, suggested he was balancing his support for democracy with America’s national interest. “I’m not going to change my view on human rights,” Biden said. “But as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
The trip will mark Biden’s first visit to Israel as president and comes nearly 50 years after he first visited the country as a young senator. He also plans to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a meeting likely to occur in Bethlehem during a stop in the West Bank, as he tries to reestablish the United States as a broker in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
The whirlwind trip reflects Biden’s attempt to address some of the thorniest challenges in the region: pressure to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a need for more oil that could help lower soaring gas prices, efforts to revive peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and a push to end the war in Yemen.
The alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia ruptured following the murder of Khashoggi, and American intelligence officials have concluded since then that Mohammed ordered the killing, which occurred inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
In a 2019 Democratic primary debate, Biden sought to differentiate himself from President Donald Trump by stressing that as president he would punish Saudi Arabia. “I would make it very clear we were … going to, in fact, make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” he said, adding that “there’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
As recently as a few days ago, the president himself seemed unsure if he would ultimately make a visit to the country. Asked on Saturday if he had made a decision, Biden said, “Not yet.”
Jean-Pierre emphasized that the agenda would be far broader than a mere discussion of energy prices. “To look at this trip as it being only about oil is not — it would be simply wrong to do that,” she said.
But Jean-Pierre struggled to explain how Biden was reconciling his human rights concerns with the need to contact the influential kingdom. She would not say whether Biden plans to raise Khashoggi’s murder directly during the meeting, commenting only more generally that he routinely brings up human rights issues abroad.
“As you know, human rights is always part of the conversation in our foreign engagements,” she said. “So that will always be the case … regardless of who he’s meeting with.”
Jean-Pierre added that while “we’re not overlooking any conduct that happened before the president took office,” the administration is “not looking to rupture relationships.”
Biden’s meeting with the crown prince is the culmination of a half-dozen low-key visits to the Saudi kingdom over the last two years by the president’s top Middle East adviser, Brett McGurk, and his special envoy for energy affairs, Amos Hochstein.
The two men last traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates several weeks ago to flesh out the details of a potential presidential visit and renew appeals for an increase in oil production, said a U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic details.
From the outset of the administration, some U.S. officials favored a cold-shoulder approach to Saudi Arabia, pointing to the crown prince’s unpopular war in Yemen, Riyadh’s poor human rights record and specifically the brutal killing of Khashoggi.
The officials, many in senior roles at the State Department and USAID, also felt that they had room to maneuver given the United States’ growth as an oil-producing energy superpower. Creating a clean break from Trump’s close rapport with the kingdom also had broad appeal among the president’s appointees.
The most prominent official opposing the arm’s-length treatment was McGurk, who views the kingdom as a critical partner on a range of security, energy and diplomatic issues in the Middle East, said U.S. officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter.
That view began to gain favor in the White House last September as the price of oil rose and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia rebuffed repeated U.S. requests to increase oil output. But the decisive moment was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, which sent energy prices soaring.
Without increased Saudi oil production, Russia was able to ramp up its own oil revenue to fund its war machine. “That was the game changer,” a senior U.S. official said.
Biden officials ultimately concluded that a meeting with the crown prince, however distasteful, was a necessary act of realpolitik to lower energy prices and cut the demand for Russia oil.
Still, a recent decision by the OPEC Plus nations to increase output over the summer, seen by U.S. officials as the first fruit of a budding Saudi rapprochement, provides no guarantee of slowing inflation, according to many energy analysts. They remain doubtful that further production increases by Saudi Arabia alone would substantially reduce gas prices.
But the Biden administration is urgently casting about for even long-shot ways to dampen soaring prices at the pump, and the pressure to turn to one of the world’s major oil producers became overwhelming.
Durbin said he understood Biden’s urgent desire to lower gasoline prices but that he was worried about the message it sends for the president to meet with a regime that has such a poor human rights record.
“I have mixed feelings on this,” he said on CNN. “And if the president called me, I would say, ‘Mr. President, you can’t trust these people. Their standards are not our standard; their values are not ours.’ ”
Schiff, for his part, penned a letter to the White House several days ago, co-signed by other Intelligence Committee members, imploring the administration to pressure the Saudis on human rights, the war in Yemen, oil production and its military partnership with Beijing.
But a senior administration official said the Biden team believes private conversations can often be more effective than public pressure.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under the ground rules of a call to discuss Biden’s plans, outlined several steps the administration has taken in response to Khashoggi’s murder, including sanctions against dozens of Saudis. Notably, however, these penalties did not target the crown prince himself.
Ultimately, the official said, White House officials consider cooperation with Saudi Arabia too important to set aside.
“Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the United States for eight decades,” the official said. “We share a host of interests with Saudi Arabia, from containing Iran to counterterrorism to helping protect its territory where, importantly, 70,000 Americans live and work.”
During the trip to Saudi Arabia, Biden will attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. That summit will also include Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
The trip will begin in Israel, where Biden plans to meet with Israeli leaders to reaffirm U.S. support for its security. He is also planning to travel to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority leaders, reiterating his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While in Israel, Biden is planning to tour an area featuring missile defense and security systems funded in part by the United States. His visit also coincides with the start of the Maccabiah Games, a competition of Jewish athletes, and he is expected to meet with some of the contestants.
But the president also will arrive at a volatile time for the Israeli government, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warning that his governing coalition could collapse within the next two weeks.
Biden has traveled to the region many times before and in the past has recounted — at times inaccurately — a meeting he had in 1973 with Golda Meir, in which the then-prime minister described to him parts of the history of the country and the security challenges it faced.
“It had a profound impact on me, one of the most consequential meetings I’ve ever had in my life,” Biden later recalled.
Several weeks after he left, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack on Israel in what became known as the Yom Kippur War, or October War.