President Joe Biden will visit Saudi Arabia next month, the White House announced Tuesday, a foreign policy trade-off that completes the reversal of his campaign pledge to make the kingdom a “pariah.”
The trip, set for mid-July, will also include Biden’s first stop in Israel as President as well as a visit to the Palestinian West Bank. It will culminate with a major gathering of regional leaders in Jeddah, the Saudi port city, where Biden is expected to engage in some capacity with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“The President looks forward to outlining his affirmative vision for US engagement in the region over the coming months and years,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement announcing the visit. “The President appreciates King Salman’s leadership and his invitation. He looks forward to this important visit to Saudi Arabia, which has been a strategic partner of the United States for nearly eight decades.”
Planning for next month’s trip has been in the works for months as US officials consulted with their Saudi and Israeli counterparts on the contours of a visit. Initially planned for the end of June, the trip was pushed back two weeks to not coincide with a scheduled visit to Europe for summits of the G7 and NATO. The White House had refused to confirm a trip would happen, even while saying they were planning one.
“We’re now in a place where we feel this has come together in a very constructive way for everyone involved and the President’s looking forward to it,” a senior administration official told reporters on Monday evening.
In Israel, Biden plans to meet the country’s leadership, though current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has warned his fragile governing coalition may be on the brink of collapse. Biden will also view US-provided defensive systems and meet with athletes visiting for an international Jewish sporting event. He’ll also meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, likely in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, to discuss prospects for restarting peace talks.
Air Force One will fly directly from Israel to Jeddah, itself a sign of warming relations in a region where bans on direct travel were once an extension of deep enmity between Israel and its Arab neighbors. In Jeddah, he’ll participate in a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprised of the region’s monarchies, plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
That the meetings are occurring in Jeddah, and not the capital Riyadh, could be viewed as a symbolic downgrade from an official “state visit.” The last US president to visit Jeddah, the kingdom’s second-largest city and commercial center, was President George H.W. Bush in 1990.
Still, according to a senior administration official, Biden is expected to “see” the powerful Mohammed bin Salman as part of his engagement with Saudi leaders, though whether that meant a one-on-one meeting or something less formal remained unclear.
The Saudi announcement of the visit was more explicit. “The Crown Prince and President Biden will hold official talks that will focus on various areas of bilateral cooperation,” the statement read.
Officials have said Biden approved the trip after some initial reluctance at the prospect of backing off his promise to make Saudi Arabia pay a price for its role in the grisly 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Some of the President’s allies in Congress have criticized a trip and in particular a meeting with Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler.
Biden had been hesitant to engage Prince Mohammed, determining early in his tenure that he would speak only to the crown prince’s father, King Salman, who is 86 years old and in failing health. The White House said in February 2021 that Biden was looking to “recalibrate” relations with Riyadh, including by shunning the crown prince, whom US intelligence agencies have deemed responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a global spike in energy prices and a growing nuclear threat from Iran have scrambled the global calculus. And now Biden has determined it is necessary to warm ties with a longtime US partner in the Middle East.
“At bottom, the President believes strongly at this particular moment in the world, with interests at stake for the United States and the American people, visiting Saudi Arabia for a summit of leaders from across the Middle East region to discuss face to face with those leaders, including the Saudis, how we move forward as partners is the smart thing to do at the right time and offers opportunity for significant gains,” the senior administration official said.
Sky-high gas prices, which hit a national average of $5 per gallon over the weekend, have consumed the White House and become a major political liability for Biden. While OPEC Plus announced plans this month to modestly increase production, the change may have only a limited effect on gas prices in the United States.
Speaking to reporters this weekend, Biden insisted the trip was not tied to global energy prices, even though the US has been pressuring the Saudi-led OPEC Plus collective to increase oil production as the price of gas skyrockets.
“The commitments from the Saudis don’t relate to anything having to do with energy,” he said. “It happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia. That’s the reason I’m going. And it has to do with national security for them – for Israelis.”
The Biden administration, led by White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk, has been working with Israel and Saudi Arabia to broker economic and security agreements as the two countries work toward unfreezing ties. Saudi Arabia does not officially recognize Israel and the nations have no official diplomatic relations.
The agreements would allow commercial flights traveling from Israel to fly over Saudi airspace. A separate agreement could resolve an ongoing issue over two strategically located islands in the Red Sea, transferring them to Saudi control.
The US has also been working with Saudi Arabia to extend a ceasefire in Yemen, where a Saudi-led war has been raging for years. In a statement after the truce was extended, Biden praised Riyadh’s “courageous leadership.”
Even before it was formally announced, Biden’s trip has drawn scrutiny from some Democrats and human rights advocates.
“I have mixed feelings on this, and if the President called me, I would say, ‘Mr. President, you can’t trust these people. Their standards are not our standards, their values are not ours,’” Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said Tuesday on CNN.
Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, accused Biden of losing his moral compass as word of his trip emerged.
“President Biden’s decision to meet MBS is horribly upsetting to me and supporters of freedom and justice everywhere,” she said in a statement to CNN last week.
Officials said human rights are a consistent facet of all of Biden’s diplomatic conversations, including with Saudi Arabia.
“A lot of these conversations, we do hold them behind closed doors,” the senior administration official said.