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Biden decides to visit Saudi Arabia, turning back toward kingdom amid energy crisis

US president expected to meet Crown Prince Mohammed, who he once deemed a ‘pariah,’ during trip later this month that will include a stop in Israel

US President Joe Biden speaks at a change of command ceremony at US Coast Guard headquarters, June 1, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden speaks at a change of command ceremony at US Coast Guard headquarters, June 1, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — US President Joe Biden has decided to travel to Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks and is expected to meet with the kingdom’s crown prince, whom he once shunned for his brutality. It’s a visit that is coming together as OPEC+, which is led by Riyadh, announced Thursday it will pump more oil amid skyrocketing energy costs around the globe.

Biden’s first trip to the Saudi kingdom as president is likely to occur later this month but details have not been finalized, a person familiar with the planning told The Associated Press. Biden is also expected to visit Israel during the trip.

The White House on Thursday praised Saudi Arabia for its role securing an OPEC+ pledge to pump more oil and the president himself lauded the Saudis for agreeing to a cease-fire extension in its eight-year old war with Yemen that was also announced Thursday.

“Saudi Arabia demonstrated courageous leadership by taking initiatives early on to endorse and implement terms of the UN-led truce,” Biden said in a statement after the 60-day extension of the cease fire was announced.

Those warm words mark a sharp contrast with some of Biden’s earlier rhetoric about the oil-rich kingdom. As a candidate, he pledged to treat the Saudis as a “pariah” for the 2018 killing and dismemberment of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s brutal ways. US intelligence officials determined that the Saudi crown prince likely approved the killing of the journalist.

The ultraconservative kingdom’s leadership also had a close relationship with former US president Donald Trump, who largely shielded Saudi Arabia from repercussions after Khashoggi’s killing.

Biden administration officials have been working behind the scenes to repair relations, discussing shared strategic interests in security and oil with their Saudi counterparts. The effort has played out as the fallout from the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the world’s No. 2 crude exporter after Saudi Arabia, and a Saudi-Russian brokered cap on oil production have raised crude prices and sent prices Americans pay at the pump to record highs.

Biden and Democrats face rising voter anger over the high prices, making the tight oil supply a top political liability.

Appeals from the US and its allies for the OPEC+ group — OPEC nations plus Russia — to boost production more appeared to bear results Thursday. OPEC nations announced they would raise production by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August, offering modest relief for a struggling global economy.

In this photo released by Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 14, 2021. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

The increase did not appear to ease concerns about tight supply. Oil prices rose after OPEC+ announced the increase.

The White House is weighing a Biden 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 the person familiar with White House planning, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the yet-to-be finalized trip.

Biden would be expected to meet with Prince Mohammed during the visit, according to the person.

Such a meeting could ease a tense 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 US leader, who in 2019 pledged to make a “pariah” of the Saudi royal family over the killing of Khashoggi.

Biden 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.

Israeli officials in their engagement with the Biden administration have pressed their point of view that US relations with Arab capitals, including Riyadh, are critical to Israel’s security and overall stability in the region. The visit could also provide an opportunity to kick off talks for what the administration sees as a longer-term project of normalizing Israel-Saudi relations.

Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia also share an enmity with Iran, which will most likely be on the table during Biden’s Middle East visit.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a Washington audience Wednesday that Saudi Arabia was a key player in contending with Tehran and in Israel’s normalization agreements with Arab countries.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends the Informal Meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Berlin, Germany, May 15, 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool via AP)

“Saudi Arabia is a critical partner to us in dealing with extremism in the region, in dealing with the challenges posed by Iran, and also I hope in continuing the process of building relationships between Israel and its neighbors both near and further away through the continuation, the expansion of the Abraham Accords,” Blinken said.

Israel has long sought ties with Saudi Arabia. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Monday that Israel is coordinating with the United States and Gulf nations on a process to normalize ties with Riyadh. Saudi Arabia was seen as giving approval to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to forge ties with Israel.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but covert ties have warmed in recent years. Crown Prince Mohammad reportedly sees Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence in the region.

And while the Biden administration continues to be concerned about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the president’s advisers credit Saudis for showing greater restraint in its conflict with Yemen since Biden took office.

White House officials expect criticism from Democratic allies and human rights advocates charging Biden is backtracking on human rights, but suggest that in the long term a credible Middle East strategy without key leaders in the kingdom is not tenable.

Biden, through the early going of his presidency, has repeatedly said the world is at a key moment in history where democracies must demonstrate they can out-deliver autocracies. The administration doesn’t want to see countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia with troubling human rights records fall into the camp of Moscow and Beijing.

US officials were recently in the region for talks with Saudi officials about energy supplies, Biden administration efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, and the war in Yemen.

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.

Besides helping to keep gas prices high for consumers globally, the tight oil supply helps Russia fund its invasion of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the Saudi kingdom Tuesday.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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