The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden heads to Saudi Arabia amid discomfort and criticism

Biden promised during his campaign to make the kingdom a ‘pariah.’ He has now agreed to visit, but the sensitivities are evident and the results uncertain.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before a Formula One race in Jiddah on Dec. 5, 2021. (Andrej Isakovic/Pool Via Reuters)
10 min

JERUSALEM — Shortly after taking office, President Biden ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to declassify their assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi government.

Biden was eager to distinguish himself from former president Donald Trump, who had been criticized for his closeness with the Saudis and had cast doubt on the conclusion that the crown price had ordered the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist. Biden pointedly took a step Trump would not, imposing sanctions and travel bans on Saudis connected to the killing.

But Biden did not actually put sanctions on the crown prince, the de facto ruler of the oil-rich kingdom. That obvious omission signaled an early decision by Biden that, despite his campaign pledge to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and notwithstanding the country’s brutal human rights violations, he would end up engaging with the country, according to White House officials.

Biden now finds himself in an uncomfortable position as he visits Saudi Arabia later this week, trying to signal simultaneously that he values the country as an ally and that he harbors significant reservations about visiting. That discomfort has created uncertainty around what, exactly, will be the outcome of the president’s four-day swing through Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“The Biden team, and President Biden himself, are fumbling their articulation of why they’re even going,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “There seems to be almost a sense of chagrin about going. That’s unfortunate, because that sends messages over to the region and makes the likelihood of success in their trip lower.”

White House officials say the trip’s goals are clear: to help integrate Israel further into the region; to solidify a delicate cease-fire between Saudi Arabia and Yemen; to align Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Arab partners on a stalled nuclear deal with Iran; and to counter China and Russia’s influence in the Middle East.

Biden will sit down face-to-face with the crown prince, but only as part of larger meetings with Saudi King Salman, who at 86 is the country’s nominal head, and leaders of other Persian Gulf nations, White House officials said.

But when asked about the meeting last month, Biden said: “It’s in Saudi Arabia, but it’s not about Saudi Arabia. And so there’s no commitment that is being made or — I’m not even sure; I guess I will see the king and the crown prince, but that’s — that’s not the meeting I’m going to. They’ll be part of a much larger meeting.”

Biden’s visit is part of his first trip to the Middle East since taking office. On Wednesday, Biden will arrive in Israel, marking his 10th trip to the country. He has long been an ardent supporter of Israel, often touting his relationships with its leaders dating back to Golda Meir, who was prime minister in the early 1970s.

On Friday, Biden is to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Biden will also hold bilateral meetings with leaders of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq while in Saudi Arabia, according to a senior White House official.

The engagement with Saudi Arabia, however, will be his most complicated diplomatic test.

Discussions about a possible presidential visit to Saudi Arabia began in February, when Biden told his national security team he wanted to visit the Middle East, a senior White House official said. Over months of sometimes contentious internal discussions, Biden and his senior aides concluded that the United States’ security and energy relationship with Saudi Arabia was too important to isolate the country, according to the White House official and two other top administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

Still, Biden had reservations about meeting with the crown prince, hesitant to reward a leader who has an extensive record of human rights violations, according to two of the officials.

Biden sent Brett McGurk, his chief Middle East adviser, and Amos Hochstein, his special envoy for energy affairs, to Saudi Arabia to determine whether a presidential visit would be justified. By May, Biden and his aides had decided that he would visit the country, the White House official said.

But Biden’s ongoing discomfort was reflected in his public refusal to acknowledge the decision, telling reporters in early June that he had “no direct plans at the moment” to visit Saudi Arabia.

The importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship came into sharp relief after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which prompted the United States and its allies to ban imports of Russian oil, causing domestic gasoline prices to spike.

Saudi Arabia has so far increased oil production by only a limited amount, prompting leading Democratic lawmakers to complain in a letter last month that its “refusal to stabilize global energy markets is helping bankroll Vladimir Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, while inflicting economic pain on everyday Americans.” Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries have expressed only tepid support for the Western campaign to isolate Russia.

Biden hopes to change that, but the visit will require engaging an indisputably harsh regime. According to human rights groups, Saudi authorities regularly repress and torture dissidents and human rights activists. The country does not tolerate public worship by followers of religions other than Islam and even discriminates against Muslim minorities, and its judges punish people suspected of having sex outside marriage, activists say.

The crown prince has implemented modest reforms, such as allowing women to drive. But the Saudis’ brutal record was punctuated by the 2018 murder of Khashoggi, who investigators have concluded was killed and dismembered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Human rights activists have criticized Biden in part because the White House has scheduled no news conference for the visit to Jiddah, which would have allowed him to voice his criticism on Saudi soil. Some Democratic senators called on Biden to set conditions for his meeting with Mohammed, including an admission of wrongdoing for the killing of Khashoggi and progress on the fragile cease-fire in the Yemen war.

Saudi strikes against Yemen relied on U.S. support

Biden and his aides defend the administration’s record on Saudi Arabia, pointing to Biden’s moves to declassify the U.S. intelligence report on Khashoggi’s killing; impose sanctions on Saudis tied to the killing; encourage the Saudi-Yemeni cease-fire; and reverse Trump’s “blank check” policy toward the kingdom.

In a column published Saturday in The Washington Post, Biden said a top goal is to ensure that Saudi Arabia does not fall into the orbit of a hostile power. “We have to counter Russia’s aggression, put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China, and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world,” Biden wrote. “To do these things, we have to engage directly with countries that can impact those outcomes. Saudi Arabia is one of them.”

Speaking to reporters on Monday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said administration officials had been in touch with Khashoggi’s family, although Biden personally had not. Sullivan said Biden would make a “major statement” on his vision for the Middle East before the end of the trip.

Asked whether Biden regretted his comments promising to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” Sullivan said no.

“The president has not expressed regret about his statements,” Sullivan said. “He’s been focused on his view that the United States has important interests to advance and protect, including the partnership with Saudi Arabia, and among other things the need to increase the prospects of peace in the region.”

As a candidate, Biden vowed to restore U.S. global leadership on human rights after the Trump era and said he found “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” Given such comments, even some of the president’s top aides initially harbored reservations about this trip.

But once in office, Biden found himself battling an ascendant China for global influence while seeking to fend off Russia’s growing aggression. At the same time, Biden has taken a political hit from the sharp increase in the price of gas, although it has come down in recent days.

McGurk, a longtime Middle East hand who was deeply involved in the fight against extremists in the region, was instrumental within the administration in arguing that Saudi Arabia was too important to isolate. Sullivan has also long pushed for increased engagement with the kingdom, as has Hochstein, whose influence and portfolio have grown tremendously in recent months, White House aides said.

The nations of the OPEC Plus bloc announced last month that they would increase production by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August, a modest acceleration of existing plans to reverse production cuts related to the pandemic. But the decision is seen by many energy analysts as likely to have only a modest impact.

Biden’s broader Middle East priorities have been vague, as he took office determined to avoid getting bogged down in the intricacies of the region’s diplomacy that had enmeshed previous administrations.

Biden made clear that countering China was his administration’s top foreign policy goal. That was reflected inside the White House, where the directorates overseeing the Indo-Pacific region and China were enlarged in comparison with those offices in past Democratic administrations, and fewer spots on the National Security Council were allocated for staffers working on the Middle East, according to officials familiar with the strategy.

But very quickly, it became clear that simply staying away was not an option.

Just a few months after Biden took office, a violent conflict broke out in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas. After 11 days of fighting, the two sides agreed to a cease-fire, but it took a flurry of diplomatic activity, including more than 80 calls and contacts among U.S., Israeli and Arab officials — and six direct conversations between Biden and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The crisis was tamped down, at least temporarily, but that did little to clarify Biden’s longer-range goals in the Middle East.

“I haven’t heard an articulation of the objectives for the trip, and it may be they’re not confident about what response they might get from the other side — certainly from Saudi Arabia, so they are being cautious about setting expectations,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former Obama administration official who is executive director of the McCain Institute. “It would be really helpful if the president himself could articulate a clear Middle East strategy, so that our allies and partners could help the United States in achieving those objectives.”