WASHINGTON — 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 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, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the yet-to-be finalized plans.
It comes as 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 if the Saudi visit happens, according to the person familiar with the deliberations.
Such a meeting could also ease a fraught and uncertain period in the 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 critic of Prince Mohammed's brutal ways.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Wednesday declined to comment on whether Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia. He is expected to travel to Europe at the end of June and could tack on a stop in Saudi Arabia to meet with Prince Mohammed, Saudi King Salman and other leaders. If he does, Biden would also likely visit Israel.
Last week, the White House confirmed that Brett McGurk, the National Security Council Middle East coordinator, 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 his involvement.
Still, Biden stood ready to greet the prince at last October's meeting of leading rich and developing nations in Rome, but Prince Mohammed did not attend.
And any Biden climbdown from his passionate human-rights pledge during his campaign — that Saudi rulers would “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s killing — 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.
Democrats appear less vocal now in demands that the U.S. take a hard line with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. Near-record gas prices are endangering their prospects in the November midterm election.
A leading congressional critic of the Saudi government, Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia, said in an email the United States “should reassess its unconditional support for Saudi Arabia.” But he and other Democrats are not publicly telling Biden he shouldn’t meet with Prince Mohammed.
Lawmakers point especially to Saudi Arabia’s refusal despite months of Western appeals to veer from an oil production cap brokered largely between the Saudi kingdom and oil-producer Russia. The production cap is adding to oil supply shortfalls stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the same time, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron have privately urged Biden to work to soothe U.S.-Saudi relations as has Israel, which sees the kingdom as an essential player in countering Iran.
Besides helping to keep gas prices high for consumers globally, the tight supply helps Russia get better prices for the oil and gas it is selling to fund its invasion of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the Saudi kingdom Tuesday.
Frequent, warm visits among Saudi, Russian and Chinese officials during the freeze between Biden and the Saudi crown prince have heightened Western concern that Saudi Arabia is breaking from Western strategic interests.
The United States for decades has ensured U.S. or allied aircraft carriers, troops and trainers and missile batteries remain deployed in defense of Saudi Arabia and its oil fields, and in defense of other Gulf states. The military commitment recognizes that a stable global oil market and a Gulf counterbalance to Iran are in U.S. strategic interests.
From Saudi Arabia, the United States is looking “for real assurances that it is going to be firmly aligned with the United States internationally, and not drift toward or hedge by trying to have comparable relationships with Russia and China. That goes beyond just oil,” said Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. Shapiro is an advocate of bilateral Abraham accords that have helped establish closer ties between some Arab states and Israel.
“The United States needs to have some assurance that it’s going to provide those security guarantees and it has a real partner that’s going to be like a partner,” said Shapiro, now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for their part, often see Biden as the latest of several U.S. presidents to neglect the U.S. military’s longstanding protector role in the Gulf, as Washington tries to extricate itself from Middle East conflicts to focus on China.
Those Gulf security worries may be eased by the U.S. move last year bringing control of its forces in Israel under U.S. Central Command. That effectively increases interaction between Israel's U.S.-equipped military and Arab forces under the U.S. military umbrella, Shapiro said.
Deputy Saudi Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman visited CENTCOM headquarters in Florida last month. Regional coordination was one of the main topics, including, Shapiro said, the possibility of such steps as coordinating the Middle East’s air defense capabilities.
Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan also met last month with the Saudi defense official. Sullivan said he talked energy. CIA Director William Burns visited Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia in April.
Biden administration officials bristle at the notion that a stepped-up engagement is simply about getting the Saudis to help ease gas prices. Jean-Pierre said that's “a misunderstanding of both the complexity of that issue, as well as our multifaceted discussions with the Saudis.”
“The president's words still stand,” she added Wednesday, of Biden's pledge that the Saudis would “pay a price."
Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.