The White House said Sunday that President Joe Biden’s upcoming meeting with Saudi officials will “include” the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, hours after Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm suggested there would be a one-on-one meeting.
Granholm said Sunday on CNN’s ‘State of the Union’ that it was her “understanding” that Biden would meet one-on-one with the crown prince next month during his planned trip to Saudi Arabia that amounts to a reversal of the President’s earlier pledge to make the country a “pariah” for its role in Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018.
Asked by CNN’s Dana Bash whether Biden would meet with Crown Prince Mohammed to talk about oil prices, Granholm initially said that he was “going for the purpose of this international conference” – a reference to the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council to be held in Jeddah – before adding that she thought the President would meet with the de facto Saudi leader.
“I think he will meet with the Saudi crown prince,” Granholm said. “He has asked for all suppliers around the globe to increase production. That includes [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries], that includes our domestic oil and gas producers. He is asking for an increase like other leaders around the globe.”
Pressed by Bash to clarify if the meeting would be one-on-one, Granholm said: “That’s my understanding, that they – he will be meeting. But there’s a series of meetings around energy overall.”
The secretary’s comments stood in contrast with Biden’s remarks Friday.
“I’m not going to meet with MBS, I’m going to an international meeting. And he’s going to be part of it just like there were people part of a big discussion today,” the President said at the virtual leader-level meeting of the Major Economies Forum on Leadership and Climate that took place Friday and referring to the crown prince by his initials.
Asked by CNN later Sunday for clarification over Granholm’s comments, a National Security Council spokesperson stuck close to administration talking points.
“The President will be in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of King Salman together with eight additional heads of State for the GCC+3 Summit,” the spokesperson said, referring to the meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
“As we’ve said, there will be a bilateral meeting with King Salman and his team. That meeting will include the crown prince and other Saudi officials,” the NSC spokesperson added. “The President will see over a dozen counterparts over the course of this trip to the Middle East next month.”
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.
Officials have said Biden approved the visit to Saudi Arabia after some initial reluctance to back off his vow to make the kingdom pay a price for its role in Khashoggi’s murder.
Biden since taking office has avoided directly engaging with Crown Prince Mohammed, instead choosing to speak to his father, King Salman, who is 86 and in failing health. The White House said in February 2021 that Biden was aiming to “recalibrate” relations with Riyadh, including by shunning the crown prince, whom US intelligence agencies have deemed responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.
But with Russia’ invasion of Ukraine, a global spike in energy prices and an increasing nuclear threat from Iran, the US has been trying to build back its relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.
The trip and meeting with Prince Mohammed has drawn criticism, including from some of Biden’s allies in Congress.
Asked by Bash to explain to the American people why it was appropriate for Biden to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed after Khashoggi’s killing, Granholm defended the President.
“Obviously, the President is a strong believer in human rights and has condemned Saudi Arabia,” the secretary said, adding that Biden was “very concerned” about Khashoggi’s murder.
“I’m sure we’ll raise that issue. But he’s also very concerned about what people are experiencing at the pump, and Saudi Arabia is head of OPEC, and we need to have increased production so that everyday citizens in America will not be feeling this pain that they’re feeling right now,” she added. “So all around the world is asking for people to increase production, but especially our own oil and gas producers.”
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.