WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is leaning towards making a visit to Saudi Arabia — a trip that would likely bring him face-to-face with the Saudi crown prince he once shunned as a killer.
The White House is weighing a visit to Saudi Arabia that would also include a meeting of the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates) as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, according to a person familiar with White House planning. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the yet-to-be finalized plans.
It comes at a moment when overriding U.S. strategic interests in oil and security have pushed the administration to rethink the arms-length stance that Biden pledged to take with the Saudis as a candidate for the White House.
Any meeting between Biden and de facto Saudi ruler Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a Biden visit to the Middle East could offer hope of some relief for U.S. gasoline consumers, who are wincing as a squeaky-tight global oil supply drives up prices. Biden would be expected to meet with Prince Mohammed, who is often referred to by his initials, MBS — if the Saudi visit happens, according to the person familiar with the deliberations.
Such a meeting could also ease one of the most fraught and uncertain periods in a partnership between Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and the United States, the world’s top economic and military power, that has stood for more than three-quarters of a century.
But it also risks a public humbling for the U.S. leader, who in 2019 pledged to make a “pariah” of the Saudi royal family over the 2018 killing and dismemberment of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a newspaper critic of many of the brutal ways that Prince Mohammed operates.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Wednesday declined to comment on whether Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia. Biden is expected to travel to Europe at the end of June. He could tack on a stop in Saudi Arabia to meet with Prince Mohammed, Saudi King Salman and other leaders. The president would also likely visit Israel should he extend his upcoming travels to include Saudi Arabia.
Last week, the White House confirmed that NSC Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser for energy security at the State Department, were recently in the region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone Monday with his Saudi counterpart.
McGurk and Hochstein, as well as Tim Lenderking, the U.S. special envoy for Yemen, have repeatedly visited Saudi Arabia for talks with Saudi officials about energy supplies, Biden administration efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and Saudi’s war in Yemen, recently calmed by a cease-fire.
For Biden, the political dangers of offering his hand to Prince Mohammed include the potential for an embarrassing last-minute public rebuff from a still-offended crown prince known for imperious, harsh actions. Since Prince Mohammed became crown prince in 2017, that has included detaining his own royal uncles and cousins as well as Saudi rights advocates, and, according to the U.S. intelligence community, directing Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi Arabia denies involvement by the crown prince.
Still, Biden stood ready to greet the prince at last October's G20 summit in Rome, but Prince Mohammed did not attend.
And any Biden climbdown from his passionate human-rights pledge — Saudi rulers would “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s killing, Biden vowed on the debate stage during his campaign — risks more disillusionment for Democratic voters. They have watched Biden struggle to accomplish his domestic agenda in the face of a strong GOP minority in the Senate.