WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is planning to visit Saudi Arabia later this month, a remarkable departure from his vow as a presidential candidate to treat the country as a “pariah” state, according to three administration officials who requested anonymity to share details of a trip not yet announced.
The president’s trip to Riyadh follows broader efforts by his administration to build ties with the oil-rich nation to reduce the price of gas in the United States, which has skyrocketed in recent months.
The stop in Saudi Arabia is expected to be added to Biden’s overseas trip later this month, when he will travel to Israel, Germany and Spain, the officials said.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia ruptured after the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of the Saudi government. American intelligence has concluded Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto leader, ordered the killing of Khashoggi.
“We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” Biden said of Saudi Arabia during a Democratic debate in 2019.
He added there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
Now Biden’s trip is likely to raise fresh doubts of the Biden administration’s promise to keep human rights at the center of its foreign policy, given Saudi Arabia’s history of abuses, particularly toward women.
During his trip, the president is expected to meet with bin Salman, the officials said, a face-to-face visit that is the culmination of half a dozen discreet visits to the Saudi Kingdom over the last two years by his top Middle East adviser, Brett McGurk, and his special envoy for energy affairs, Amos Hochstein.
The two men traveled again to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last week to advance a range of issues, including a presidential visit and an increase in oil production amid soaring energy prices and rising inflation that have hampered the president’s approval ratings, said a U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic details.
The decision about whether to grant a presidential visit to the crown prince divided members of the Biden administration, many of whom preferred to keep the oil-rich autocracy at a distance after former president Donald Trump’s remarkably close rapport with the kingdom, which infuriated human rights advocates.
But advocates for keeping close ties with Riyadh ultimately won out after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The conflict’s impact on oil and gas prices exacerbated the Biden administration’s concerns about its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which had repeatedly rebuffed U.S. requests to increase oil production.
A meeting with bin Salman was eventually seen as a necessary act of realpolitik to lower energy prices and inflation, despite a campaign promise to further isolate Riyadh. Whether the move will substantially lower the price of oil is far from clear.
The member nations of OPEC+ announced Thursday that the group would add 648,000 barrels per day in July and August, a modest acceleration of plans that were already in motion to reverse drawdowns related to the pandemic. The boost in production came amid pressure from the White House for OPEC+ to do more to fill the gap created by sanctions on Russia. But the decision is seen by many energy analysts as only having a modest impact, and whether further production increases happen over the summer remains unclear.