WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia in July, where he is expected to break with his campaign-trail rhetoric by holding a face-to-face meeting with the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The crown prince outraged Washington nearly four years ago by ordering, according to U.S. intelligence services, the murder of a dissident journalist and Virginia resident.
Biden’s planned visit to Jeddah represents a reversal from his 2020 presidential campaign promise to make the crown prince a “pariah” for ordering the 2018 assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
“We can expect the president to see the crown prince,” said a senior administration official briefing reporters in a Monday evening background call on the upcoming trip.
Biden’s first visit to the Middle East as president will take place July 13-16 and will begin with stops in Israel and the occupied West Bank before wrapping up in Saudi Arabia.
While a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed is not set in stone, it seems hard for Biden to avoid coming into contact with him. A major reason for the Saudi Arabia trip will be for Biden to participate in a summit meeting in Jeddah of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and three other Arab states: Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.
“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 U.N.-mediated truce in Yemen, which has led to the most peaceful period there since war began seven years ago,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. “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.”
The administration official defended the decision to meet with the crown prince as serving the broader interests of the American people — even as the White House is not walking back its human rights concerns, particularly as far as the murder of Khashoggi is concerned.
“Human rights is always a part of the conversation in our foreign engagements,” the official said in response to a question on whether Biden is likely to broach Khashoggi’s assassination when he meets with the crown prince.
But any discussion on that topic or other human rights-related concerns will almost certainly take place “behind closed doors,” the official said. “We think that’s the best way to get results.”
A desire to end the devastating Yemeni civil war, which among other things would bring more security to the roughly 70,000 Americans living in Saudi Arabia from Houthi-fired missiles and drone strikes, as well as to secure commitments from Riyadh to increase its oil production at a time of high gasoline prices all factored into the decision for Biden to choose pragmatism over principles, the official indicated.
Increased U.S. engagement with Riyadh has already produced some tangibles, the official contended, noting the recent decision by parties in the Yemeni civil war to extend the cease-fire for another two months.
“The truce in Yemen is a clear example of where our engagement with the Saudis delivered results,” the official said. “Ending the Yemeni war was a priority for the president from the early days of the administration.”
The senior official also touted the Biden administration’s role in convincing OPEC to ramp up oil production amid skyrocketing energy costs. The average price of a gallon of gasoline cleared $5 over the weekend, exacerbated by bans on Russian oil over the war in Ukraine. That also likely will come up when the pair meets.
Prominent Capitol Hill Democrats — including the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Intelligence, Homeland Security and Oversight and Reform committees — all signed a letter to Biden last week that urged him to push for changes to the Washington-Riyadh relationship, which they feel no longer serves U.S. interests since the crown prince effectively took power in 2015.
“Saudi Arabia’s refusal to stabilize global energy markets is helping bankroll [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, while inflicting economic pain on everyday Americans,” the chairs wrote.
“Additionally, the prolonged Saudi-led war in Yemen has not reduced Iran’s malign influence, but instead created an unprecedented humanitarian disaster that will fuel regional instability,” the group added. “Finally, recent mass executions and Saudi pressure on Turkey to cease the trial for Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder bely claims that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pursuing genuine reforms.”
Also last week, a dozen human rights and civil society groups sent their own letter to Biden that warned against meeting Crown Prince Mohammed if human rights are not front and center on the agenda.
“Efforts to repair the U.S. relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia without a genuine commitment to prioritize human rights are not only a betrayal of your campaign promises but will likely embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” reads the letter, sent to the White House by the Project on Middle East Democracy, the Freedom Initiative, Human Rights Watch and others.
Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who oppose or support the president’s Saudi Arabia visit are likely to make their feelings known at a Thursday confirmation hearing for the administration’s ambassadorial pick to the kingdom, Michael Ratney, a senior career diplomat.