WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden publicly acknowledged on Friday that he may travel to Saudi Arabia soon, a trip that several sources say is expected and could include talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
Biden told reporters he does not yet have firm plans to travel to Saudi Arabia, but if he goes, it would be to try to advance Middle East peace prospects.
As recently as Wednesday, the White House said Biden still felt MBS was a “pariah” for what US intelligence says was his role in the killing and subsequent dismembering of the body of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a political opponent, in Turkey in 2018.
Khashoggi’s brutal murder at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul tainted the crown prince’s image as a reformist. The Saudi government has denied any involvement by him.
“Look, I’m not going to change my view on human rights, but as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can, and that’s what I’m going to try to do,” Biden said in explaining his reasoning for why he may make the trip.
The visit would be aimed at bolstering relations with Saudi Arabia at a time when Biden is trying to find ways to lower gasoline prices in the US.
Biden would participate in a Riyadh summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional union whose members are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sources said.
“There is a possibility that I would be going to meet with both the Israelis and some Arab countries at the time, including, I expect, would be Saudi Arabia... But I have no direct plans at the moment,” he said.
“There is a possibility that I would be going to meet with both the Israelis and some Arab countries at the time."US President Joe Biden
Prospects for a Biden visit improved on Thursday when OPEC+ agreed to increase oil output by 200,000 barrels in July and August, and a ceasefire in the Yemen war was extended.
“Candidate Biden had the stance that the Saudi human-rights record was not very good, and he campaigned on it pretty aggressively, which made it very difficult once he was elected to backtrack on that,” said Joseph Westphal, senior global fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
After taking office, the White House went through a period of not engaging with MBS, “which was pretty bad,” he said. “So, I think there are a lot of reasons that they recognize that this was probably not a good idea.”
THE REASON is not only oil, Westphal said.
“We do want them to help stabilize the price of oil,” he said. “But I think it’s more to do with the fact that Saudi Arabia is a critical regional player, and we don’t want it to get influenced by China, in particular.”
The US needs to be “more aggressive in promoting a relationship with Israel,” Westphal said. “There is a lot of interest from the Saudis in Israeli technology and capability. There are opportunities to trade and to have both investments in both places. And I think that’s desirable. I think what’s holding it back, to some extent, is some of the events that are taking place in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“This new generation of leaders – MBS, the new ministers and ambassadors – have a different sense about Israel than King Salman and his cohorts,” he said. “But they can’t ignore the importance the king relies on the Palestinian people, and we also can’t ignore the public opinion about more conservative elements within Saudi Arabia.”
“So, I think you have to wait for a period in which there is more stability in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, where the Saudis can come in and feel like they’re not undermining the Palestinians completely,” Westphal said. “Public opinion will not allow the Saudis to announce tomorrow that they’re having diplomatic relations with Israel immediately.”
“When I was leaving Saudi Arabia, King Salman asked to see me,” he said. “I was very grateful for that because we had become good friends. Even though he’s the head of state and I was just an ambassador, he wanted to say goodbye. And in a conversation when I went to see him, he said to me, ‘Ambassador, I’d like you to give a message to President [Barack] Obama. Thank him for his leadership and friendship, and wish them well. And then I’d like you to give a message to President-elect [Donald] Trump.’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘Tell him that we believe in the right of the State of Israel to exist, and we believe that it is important to work towards a Palestinian state. And please pass that on.’”
The Saudis want a better relationship with the US, Westphal said.
“They don’t see China and Russia and even some of the European powers as their best bet,” he said. “The United States is their best bet for a long-term relationship. They still see the United States as a strong partner in defending their sovereignty.”
What is causing the change?
DAVID OTTAWAY, Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center and former Washington Post Middle East correspondent, said he would explain what appears to be a changing policy by the Biden administration regarding events on the ground.
“Events on the ground dictate US foreign policy today, not high aspirations,” he said.
Ottaway cited two events in particular: One is the Ukraine war and the rising cost of gasoline worldwide, “but particularly in the US because we have an election this November, and the other event on the ground is Iran.”
“Iran did not seem to be moving towards an agreement,” he said. “It seems to be marching forward with the nuclear program. It’s a showdown looming with Iran. And in that case, Saudi Arabia takes on particular importance because of its geographic location and its commitment to try to contain Iran’s expansionism in the Arab world. And that’s certainly the case for the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia to join together in a common cause.”
“We don’t know yet whether the nuclear agreement will be revived,” Ottaway said. “It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. So, the prospect for a confrontation [with Iran] becomes more realistic, and the need for cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia becomes greater and greater in conjunction with the United States.”
YASMINE FAROUK is a nonresident scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“President Biden really made this personal about the crown prince,” she said. “And so now he’s going to meet that very same crown prince that the tensions were crystallized around, which makes the United States look less credible and weaker in the relationship, even though when it comes to facts, it still is the stronger party in this relationship.”
Diversification of the international relations of Saudi Arabia is a fact, Farouk said.
“It’s a policy in Saudi Arabia that the country will no longer only rely on its partnership with the United States, whether for the economy or even for security,” she said. “However, the United States remains the most important partner because it is the strongest partner that Saudi Arabia could have, internationally speaking. They have the best arms, the best technologies, the best companies.
“It’s also the best option to protect Saudi Arabia and to give it more weight regionally but also internationally. So Saudi Arabia will always choose the United States, even as it will continue to try to diversify its international relations.”
Asked what the US is expecting Saudi Arabia to give in return to improving ties with Washington, Farouk said: “I think MBS thinks that he already gave something in return to Biden: The change on Yemen, the change in regional policy, the releasing of low- and high-profile political prisoners, these are all things that he already made.
“And then you had the news that Opec+ are significantly increasing the production. And you had a White House statement thanking and singling out Saudi Arabia for increasing the production. He is giving him something in return. So compromises were made on both sides.”
Regarding the prospects of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Farouk said she was doubtful that the relationship between the countries would become public soon.
“I know that Arab normalization with Israel is also a top priority on the Biden agenda, but I doubt that Saudi Arabia is going to make a big step on this because Saudi considerations are different from Emirati or even Bahraini considerations,” she said.
“It doesn’t mean that the current pattern of the relationship with Israel, which is unofficial relations and ongoing dialogues and even transfer of technologies and some kind of defense cooperation will not continue,” Farouk said. “I think it will continue. It might even be expanded. I expect the Biden administration to continue pressuring in this regard. I even expect the Biden administration to be even more ready to make more concessions to MBS if he accepts some kind of public steps towards Israel. But I am not sure he’s going to do it now. He’s already getting what he wants. What MBS wanted is a Biden recognition of his power, of his political status, and this is happening.”
Reuters contributes to this report.