WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden will make his first trip to the Middle East next month with visits to Israel, the occupied West Bank and Saudi Arabia, the White House announced Tuesday.
The decision to pay a call on Saudi leaders during the July 13-16 trip comes after Biden as a Democratic presidential candidate branded the kingdom a “pariah” because of its human rights record and pledged to recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Biden plans to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. U.S. intelligence officials determined Prince Mohammed likely ordered the brutal 2018 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. After Biden took office, his administration made clear the president would avoid direct engagement with the crown prince and instead focus his engagements with King Salman.
Human rights advocates and some Democratic allies cautioned Biden about visiting the oil-rich kingdom, saying such a visit without first getting human rights commitments would send a message to Saudi leaders that there are no consequences for egregious rights violations. The Saudis have been accused of using mass arrests, executions and violence to squelch dissent.
But at a time of skyrocketing prices at the gas pump, growing worries about Iran’s nuclear program and perpetual concern that China is expanding its global footprint, Biden and his national security team have determined that freezing out the Saudis, particularly the crown prince, is simply not in the U.S. interest.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency said Biden would meet with both King Salman and Prince Mohammed and described the visit as coming at King Salman’s invitation “to strengthen the historical bilateral relations and the distinguished strategic partnership between” the two countries.
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia looks forward to welcoming President Biden and defining the next chapters of our partnership,” the Saudi Embassy in Washington added in a statement. “At a time of global challenges related to the global economy, health, climate and international conflict, the partnership between our two countries is as critical as ever to the promotion of peace, prosperity and stability around the world.”
The White House announced the trip after Saudi Arabia this month helped nudge OPEC+ to ramp up oil production by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August, and the kingdom agreed to extend a United Nations-mediated cease-fire in its seven-year war with Yemen. Biden called the Saudi cease-fire decision “courageous.” Prince Mohammed, who is commonly referred to by his initials, MBS, played a “critical role” in brokering an extension of the cease-fire, according to the administration official.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement announcing the Middle East trip said King Salman invited Biden to visit the kingdom during a gathering in the port city of Jeddah of the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
“While in Saudi Arabia, the President will also discuss a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues with his counterparts. These include support to the UN-mediated truce in Yemen, which has led to the most peaceful period there since war began seven years ago,” Jean-Pierre said. “He will also discuss means for expanding regional economic and security cooperation, including new and promising infrastructure and climate initiatives, as well as deterring threats from Iran, advancing human rights, and ensuring global energy and food security.”
Biden’s first stop during the Middle East swing will be in Israel for a long-planned visit with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem. He will then meet with Palestinian Authority leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank. Biden will cap the whirlwind trip with the visit to Jeddah for the meeting of GCC leaders and talks with King Salman, the crown prince and other Saudi officials.
The trip to Israel comes at a fraught time for Bennett’s fragile coalition, as he tries to avert another election and the potential return to power of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and as Iran’s nuclear program continues advancing.
Biden’s time in Israel coincides with the Maccabiah Games, a sporting competition that brings together thousands of Jewish and Israeli athletes from around the globe. Biden, who visited Israel for the first time as a young senator nearly 50 years ago, is also expected to meet with athletes taking part in the games.
Israeli officials in their engagement with the Biden administration have pressed their point of view that U.S. relations with Arab capitals, including Riyadh, are critical to Israel’s security and overall stability in the region. The visit could also provide an opportunity to kick off talks for what the administration sees as a longer-term project of normalizing Israeli-Saudi relations.
Facing questions earlier this month about a potential visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden stressed that the relationship had multiple facets that impact U.S. and Middle East security.
“Look, 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 if I can, peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”