By Paul D. Shinkman
The White House on Tuesday said President Joe Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia next month, confirming widespread rumors in recent days that have enraged some of his closest political allies.
The trip, to begin on July 13, will start in Israel where Biden will meet with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and reinforce his support for a two-state solution there, according to an administration statement early Tuesday morning. Biden will then travel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council along with leaders from Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. There, the president is expected to focus on finding solutions to staggeringly high gas prices in the U.S. that have emboldened Republicans vying to take control of the House and the Senate in the fall.
Members of Congress from both parties have expressed surprise and anger in recent days that Biden would consider granting a meeting to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – particularly following pledges on the campaign trail that he would not shift from what he considered the country’s position as a “pariah” state. The Saudi government has faced international condemnation for the crown prince’s reported complicity in the grisly 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident.
Plans for the latest visit represent perhaps the first major test for the president to follow through on campaign promises of central importance to his closest allies while also addressing the political realities – notably gas at $5 per gallon – that will likely define the midterm elections in November.
The White House announcement of the trip was light on specifics and focused instead on how the president will follow through on core elements of his foreign policy agenda – notably energy concerns along with reaffirming U.S. support for its most consequential international allies.
The Saudi government, however, highlighted the president’s plans to meet with the Saudi king as well as the controversial crown prince in confirming the schedule for Biden’s visit moments after the White House announcement, all with an eye on how the leaders can “deepen and strengthen the existing areas of cooperation, and lay the foundations for the future of this strategic partnership,” according to a statement from its embassy.
The Biden administration has attempted to frame rising domestic gas prices as a direct result of global instability from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It is also anticipated to ask the Saudi government – again – to increase oil production to help reduce rising costs to American consumers.
Ahead of the anticipated meeting, Democratic lawmakers in Congress sent Biden a letter last week insisting that he continue to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for human rights abuses as well as reports it seeks greater strategic cooperation with China on ballistic missile technology.
Despite the persistent rumors, confirmation that Biden would visit Saudi Arabia remained a question until as recently as Monday. Speaking shortly before boarding Air Force One, Biden told reporters that, “No,” he had “not yet” decided to travel to the Gulf nation before stating that that broader regional policy “is the reason I’m going.”
The White House in recent days has attempted to demonstrate that Biden is not sacrificing any of the prior pledges he made about Saudi Arabia in agreeing to the upcoming trip.
“I mean, look, the president was honest at the time after Jamal Khashoggi was killed,” John Kirby, the former Defense Department spokesman who now oversees strategic communications for the National Security Council, told CNN last week. “We put accountability measures in. We held the Saudis accountable, parts of their government, for that. But they are an important partner in a region that is absolutely still vital to U.S. national security interests.”
“I can tell you that the president is going to be completely unafraid to have honest, candid discussions with leaders around the world, with those with whom we agree on almost everything and those where we have differences,” Kirby said, without confirming at the time that the trip would take place. “It’s important for him to be willing and able to meet with leaders all across the world, no matter who they are or who they represent, if, in fact, it’s going to improve U.S. national security interests. And, in this case, the president absolutely believes that’s the case.”
Allies of the president have also questioned in recent days whether Saudi Arabia is capable of addressing the skyrocketing global energy prices.
“I have been incredibly unimpressed by the commitments that they have made,” Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, said at a hearing last week about providing energy assistance for similar issues currently plaguing European powers. “There’s great doubt as to whether it will actually move the needle on global pricing.”
“And I also note at the same time that they’re increasing production, they’re also increasing their official selling price for refiners in top destinations in Asia and Europe, signaling that they are still very much looking to use this crisis as a means to increase their profit taking,” Murphy said.