President Joe Biden will travel to the Middle East next month, making stops in Israel, the West Bank and then Saudi Arabia, where he’ll seek to rebuild relations after vowing to make the kingdom a “pariah.”
The president’s travels will have him in the region July 13-16, and he’ll meet with more than a dozen of his counterparts, a senior administration official said. The final leg of the trip, in the Saudi capital, Jeddah, could shape the administration’s goals in the region for the rest of the year and 2023, the official said.
The trip comes just a year after the Biden administration concluded that Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader ordered the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident. The highly anticipated visit to the oil-rich kingdom, and a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will be met with mixed reception as the president ventures to address high gas prices and inflation at home while also not muddying the administration’s promises to keep human rights at the center of its foreign policy doctrine.
“From the earliest days of our administration, we made it clear that U.S. policy demanded recalibration in relations with this important country, but not a rupture,” the official said. “And that is because we have important interests interwoven with Saudi Arabia.”
The administration is already defending against the emerging narrative that Biden’s trip could be seen as letting Saudi Arabia off the hook. In a Democratic presidential debate in 2019, Biden said he would make the Saudis “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s murder and “make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
The official pointed to the administration’s release of the intelligence report that concluded that bin Salman approved the operation that led to the killing of Khashoggi in 2018, and to the State Department’s subsequent unveiling of a new policy called the Khashoggi Ban, which allows the U.S. to restrict visas against those who oppress journalists and dissidents. The U.S. has used the ban multiple times to impose sanctions on more than 70 Saudi individuals and entities, the official said, noting that these retributions were imposed all while rebuilding relations with the country.
“Human rights is always a part of the conversation,” the senior administration official said. “The president is not going to change his views on human rights. He’s made that clear. And he’s also made clear that as president of the United States, it’s his job to ‘bring peace if I can’ … and he focuses our entire national security team on getting things done for the American people.”
John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, told MSNBC on Tuesday that the subject of oil production “absolutely … is going to be part of” Biden’s talks with Saudi officials. The war in Yemen and Iran’s “destabilizing behavior” also will be topics of discussion, Kirby said.
Kirby suggested it is likely that Biden will come face to face with the Saudi crown prince during his visit, during which Biden will hold bilateral meetings with King Salman and his team. “Of course, the crown prince is on that team, so I suspect he will certainly see the crown prince in the context of these meetings,” Kirby said.
Biden is “looking forward to, again, a wide scope of discussions,” Kirby continued. “And obviously, look, human rights is something we bring up with partners and friends and folks all over the world every time we meet. It’s a key component of the president’s foreign policy. He believes that foreign policy has to be rooted in our values. Obviously, human rights will come up as a part of that discussion.”
But Kirby declined to commit to Biden raising the subject of Khashoggi’s killing with the crown prince, saying: “I’m not going to get ahead of individual discussions that the president’s going to have.”
Kirby maintained that Biden has “held Saudi Arabia accountable through a series of measures,” including the release of the incriminating intelligence report. “He has spoken very strongly about that. I don’t want to get ahead of individual discussions, but clearly, look, human rights are always on the agenda when we’re meeting with counterparts all over the world,” Kirby said.
In Saudi Arabia, Biden will participate in a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. The White House will release more details on Biden’s additional meetings, the official said.
Biden also plans to discuss the United Nations-led truce in Yemen; means for expanding “regional economic and security cooperation,” such as through infrastructure and climate initiatives; ongoing security threats from Iran; and ensuring global food and energy security as Russia’s war in Ukraine destabilizes global oil markets.
Before flying to the kingdom, Biden will meet with Israeli leaders in Israel to discuss security and the nation’s integration in the region. He’ll then travel to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian leaders to “consult with the Palestinian Authority and to reiterate his strong support for a two-state solution, with equal measures of security, freedom, and opportunity for the Palestinian people,” the administration official said.