WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is inclined to pay a visit to Saudi Arabia – a trip that would likely put him face-to-face with the Saudi crown prince he once shunned as an assassin.
The White House is considering a visit to Saudi Arabia that would also include a meeting of leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. according to a person familiar with the White House planning. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the plans, which have not yet been finalized.
It comes at a time when overriding US strategic interests in oil and security have pushed the administration to reconsider the distance stance promised by Biden as the White House candidate towards the Saudis.
Any meeting between Biden and de facto Saudi ruler Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a Biden visit to the Middle East could offer hope for some relief for US gasoline consumers, who cringe as a Lightning-fast global oil supply drives up prices. Biden is expected to meet with Prince Mohammed, often referred to by his initials MBS – if the Saudi visit goes ahead, according to the person familiar with the deliberations.
Such a meeting could also ease one of the most tense and uncertain times in a partnership between Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, and the United States, the world’s largest economic and military power, which has lasted for more than three quarters of a century.
But it also risks public humiliation for them US leader who vowed to make a ‘pariah’ in 2019 the Saudi royal family for the 2018 killing and dismemberment of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a newspaper critic of many of Prince Mohammed’s brutal policies.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on Wednesday whether Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia. Biden is expected to travel to Europe in late June. He could make a stopover 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 forthcoming trips to Saudi Arabia.
Last week, the White House confirmed that NSC Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser on energy security at the State Department, were recently in the region. Foreign Minister Antony Blinken spoke to his Saudi counterpart over the phone on Monday.
McGurk and Hochstein, as well as Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy to Yemen, have made repeated visits to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi officials on energy supplies, the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and Saudi Arabia’s recent calmed war in Yemen to speak ceasefire.
For Biden, the political dangers of offering Prince Mohammed his hand include the potential for an embarrassing, last-minute public rebuff from a still-offended crown prince known for bossy, tough actions. Since Prince Mohammed became crown prince in 2017, that has included imprisoning his own royal uncles and cousins, as well as Saudi lawyers, and directing the assassination of Khashoggi, according to US intelligence agencies. Saudi Arabia denies involvement from the crown prince.
Still, Biden stood ready to greet the prince at the G20 summit in Rome last October, but Prince Mohammed did not attend.
And any descent by Biden from his impassioned human rights pledge — the Saudi rulers would “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s assassination, Biden vowed on the debate stage during his campaign — risks further disillusionment for Democratic voters. You’ve watched Biden struggle to impose his domestic political agenda in the face of a strong GOP minority in the Senate.
Democrats now seem less vocal in demanding that the US take a hard line on the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Near-record gas prices are threatening their prospects in the November midterm elections.
A leading congressional critic of the Saudi government, Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia, said in an email the United States should “reconsider its unconditional support for Saudi Arabia.” But he and other Democrats are not publicly telling Biden not to meet with Prince Mohammed.
Lawmakers specifically point to Saudi Arabia’s refusal, despite months of appeals from the West, to deviate from an oil production cap largely negotiated between the Saudi kingdom and oil-producer Russia. The production cap is contributing to oil supply shortages stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the same time, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron have privately called on Biden to work to calm US-Saudi relations, as has Israel, which sees the kingdom as a key player in the fight against Iran.
The tight supply is not only helping to keep gas prices high for consumers around the world, but also helping Russia get better prices for the oil and gas it sells to fund its invasion of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited the Saudi kingdom on Tuesday amid increased talks in Washington over a possible meeting between Biden and Prince Mohammed.
Frequent, warm visits by Saudi, Russian and Chinese officials during the freeze between Biden and the Saudi crown prince have heightened Western concerns that Saudi Arabia is breaking with Western strategic interests.
For decades, the United States has ensured that US and allied aircraft carriers, troops and trainers, and missile batteries remain stationed in defense of Saudi Arabia and its oil fields, as well as other Gulf countries. The military engagement recognizes that a stable global oil market and a Gulf counterbalance to Iran are in US strategic interests.
From Saudi Arabia, the United States is looking for “real assurances that it will be firmly allied internationally with the United States and will not drift toward or hedge itself by attempting to have comparable ties with Russia and China. This goes beyond oil,” said Dan Shapiro, former US Ambassador to Israel. Shapiro is a supporter of bilateral Abraham Accords, which have helped forge closer ties between some Arab states and Israel.
“The United States needs some assurance that they’re going to provide these security guarantees, and they need to have a real partner who’s going to be like a partner,” said Shapiro, now a distinguished Atlantic Council official.
For their part, officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates often see Biden as the latest in a series of US presidents to neglect the US military’s long-standing protector role in the Gulf as Washington seeks to extricate itself from Middle East conflicts to focus on China.
These security concerns in the Gulf may be alleviated by the US move last year to place control of its forces in Israel under US central command. This effectively increases interaction between Israel’s US-equipped military and Arab forces under the US military umbrella, Shapiro said.
Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman visited CENTCOM headquarters in Florida last month. Regional coordination is a key issue, including, Shapiro said, the possibility of such moves as coordinating Middle East air defense capabilities.
Blinken and White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also met with the Saudi defense official last month. Sullivan said he was talking about energy. CIA Director William Burns visited Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia in April.
Biden administration officials balk at the notion that stepping up engagement is simply a matter of getting the Saudis to help lower gas prices. Jean-Pierre said last week following McGurk and Hochstein’s recent trips to the region that the idea of the White House asking the Saudis to pump more oil was “simply wrong” and “a misunderstanding of both the complexity of this issue and.” “ be like our multi-faceted conversations with the Saudis.”
“The president’s words still stand,” she added Wednesday, about Biden’s promise that the Saudis would “pay a price.”
Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.
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https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/01/as-gas-prices-soar-biden-leans-toward-visiting-saudi-arabia/ With gas prices soaring, Biden is inclined to visit Saudi Arabia