The White House has revealed the itinerary for US President Joe Biden’s first trip to the Middle East, which will include a controversial stop in Saudi Arabia and an expected meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
The Biden administration stated on Tuesday that the trip, which had previously been reported in US media, will take place from July 13 to July 16. Biden will also travel to Israel and the West Bank.
The visit to Saudi Arabia, particularly the meeting with MBS, is a 180-degree turn for Biden, who declared as a candidate that the murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi, which US intelligence later clearly tied to the crown prince, rendered the nation a “pariah.”
On October 2, 2018, a squad of Saudi operatives killed and dismembered Khashoggi inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul. Saudi officials originally claimed Khashoggi had left the premises, but after public criticism, they subsequently admitted he was murdered inside.
A UN inquiry determined in 2019 that Khashoggi’s death was a “premeditated extrajudicial killing.”
Riyadh, on the other hand, has asserted that the killing was carried out by renegade operatives without the consent of high authorities, including the crown prince. MBS has categorically denied ordering or knowing about the murder. Several civilians were also detained and tried as a result of the event.
Biden is widely expected to try to secure an increase in Saudi oil production during his July visit, as his administration scrambles to contain spiraling fuel costs – caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and domestic inflation, which are expected to hurt his Democratic Party in the upcoming midterm congressional elections.
According to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, Biden will attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan while in Jeddah.
The US president will “address a range of bilateral, regional, and global concerns” with Saudi leadership, according to Jean-Pierre, including the ongoing UN-mediated truce in Yemen, where Riyadh has led a coalition battling Houthi rebels since 2015.
“Biden will also explore ways to deepen regional economic and security cooperation, including new and promising infrastructure and climate projects, as well as deterring Iranian threats, improving human rights, and assuring global energy and food security,” she added.
Jean-Pierre later verified statements made by a senior US source who told reporters that Biden will meet with MBS during his visit. “Yes, the president will visit the crown prince,” she said.
The White House had previously stated that when US intelligence directly tied MBS to Khashoggi’s death, Biden would not interact with MBS personally in the future, as his predecessor Donald Trump had. Rather, the White House stated last year that the US president would only interact with his Saudi counterpart, King Salman, personally.
The US official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity prior to the announcement, denied that Biden would be abandoning his values on his impending trip.
After the death of Jamal Khashoggi, “US policy necessitated a recalibration of ties,” not a rupture, according to the official.
The official went on to say that there is “no question” that human rights would be discussed during Biden’s trip, but the source emphasized the significance of the partnership with Riyadh.
When asked if Biden will mention Khashoggi’s murder with MBS during an appearance on MSNBC on Tuesday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby declined to disclose details, but said “human rights are always on the agenda when we meet with colleagues all around the world.”
NYFPA believes that this visit is a terribly sad U-turn, but Mr. Biden may yet be able to recover part of his previous, moral stance. He might do so in two ways: first, by expressing US human rights concerns, including the Khashoggi case, while in Saudi Arabia – not only privately, in a meeting with MBS, but publicly, in any arena that presents itself, such as a news conference.
Second, he should demand the release of the all Saudis who are imprisoned or otherwise limited in their liberty for political reasons. Mr. Biden should insist on releasing them in conjunction with his visit.
During his visit, the president may also meet with another US-backed dictator, Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who will be in Saudi Arabia at the same time for a regional summit. If that is the case, Mr. Biden should advocate for the release of Egyptians who are imprisoned for political reasons.
We believe that such gestures are the very minimum that Mr. Biden must do in order to maintain US consistency and credibility on human rights in the Arab East.