Biden to visit ‘pariah’ Saudi Arabia and Israel next month

By AAMER MADHANI and ZEKE MILLER
Associated press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden confirmed Tuesday that he will travel to Saudi Arabia next month for talks with the kingdom’s leaders, a sweeping revamp of his stance on the kingdom he has pledged to do. a “pariah” as a Democratic candidate for the White House.

With the visit at the end of a July 13-16 trip to the Middle East that includes stops in Israel and the West Bank, Biden is dropping his adversarial stance against the Saudis’ human rights record. He is seeking to reset the relationship at a time when the United States could use aid from the oil-rich kingdom to mitigate soaring pump prices for motorists at home and around the world.

The stopover in Saudi Arabia will include talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto leader. US intelligence officials have determined that Prince Mohammed likely ordered the 2018 murder of US journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In a brief exchange with reporters before leaving for Philadelphia on Tuesday for a labor convention, Biden bristled when asked about his upcoming visit to Jeddah and noted that his team had exposed in a statement. “everything I do in the Middle East”. ”

Human rights advocates and some Democratic allies have warned Biden against visiting the kingdom, saying such a visit without securing human rights pledges first would send a message to Saudi leaders that there are no consequences for gross violations of rights. The Saudis have been accused of using mass arrests, executions and violence to stifle dissent.

But at a time of skyrocketing prices at the gas pump, growing worries about Iran’s nuclear program and perpetual fears that China will expand its global footprint, Biden and his national security team have determined that freezing the Saudis, especially the Crown Prince, is simply not in the interests of the United States.

Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and No. 2 Senate Democrat, told CNN that Biden is “struggling to manage gas prices and trying to find ways to finding new sources and supplies to bring inflation into the energy sector.

But Durbin said he had “mixed feelings” about the visit, calling the Saudi human rights record an “outrage”.

John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, told CNN that the administration respects differences of opinion on the president’s decision. He stressed “that Saudi Arabia is a key partner in the region on topics like counter-terrorism, the war in Yemen, energy production.”

The Saudi Embassy in Washington said Biden would meet with both King Salman and Prince Mohammed and described the visit as coming at the king’s invitation “to strengthen historic bilateral relations and the distinguished strategic partnership between ” the two countries.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia looks forward to welcoming President Biden and charting the next chapters of our partnership,” the Saudi Embassy said in a statement. “At a time of global challenges related to the global economy, health, climate and international conflict, the partnership between our two countries is more essential than ever in promoting peace, prosperity and stability. in the world.

The White House announced the trip after Saudi Arabia this month helped OPEC+ boost oil production by 648,000 barrels a day in July and August, and the kingdom agreed to extend a ceasefire. UN-mediated fire in its seven-year war with Yemen. Biden called the Saudi ceasefire decision “courageous.” Prince Mohammed, who is commonly referred to by his initials, MBS, played a “vital role” in brokering an extension of the ceasefire, according to the administration official.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement that King Salman had invited Biden to visit the kingdom during a gathering in the port city of Jeddah of the six countries of the Cooperation Council of the Gulf – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Arab Emirates – as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.

“While in Saudi Arabia, the President will also discuss a range of bilateral, regional and global issues with his counterparts. These include support for the UN-brokered truce in Yemen, which led to the most peaceful period since the start of the war seven years ago,” Jean-Pierre said. “He will also discuss ways to expand regional economic and security cooperation, including promising new initiatives infrastructure and climate, as well as deterring threats from Iran, advancing human rights, and ensuring global energy and food security.”

Biden’s first stop during the Middle East swing will be in Israel for a long-planned visit with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Jerusalem. He will then meet the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, including Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank. Biden will end the whirlwind trip with the visit to Jeddah.

The trip to Israel comes at a difficult time for Bennett’s fragile coalition, as it tries to avoid another election and the potential return to power of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance. .

Biden’s stay in Israel coincides with the Maccabiah Games, an athletic competition that brings together thousands of Jewish and Israeli athletes from around the world. Biden, who first visited Israel as a young senator nearly 50 years ago, is also expected to meet athletes participating in the games.

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

Facing questions earlier this month about a possible visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden stressed that the relationship has many facets that impact U.S. and Middle Eastern security.

“Look, I’m not going to change my view of human rights,” Biden said. “But as President of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can, peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”