Five questions as Biden heads to Saudi Arabia
President Biden will land in Saudi Arabia on Friday, the final leg of his trip to the Middle East.
Biden will meet with Saudi leaders, including Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on Friday, an engagement that is drenched in controversy.
The decision to meet with the crown prince, or MBS, has drawn intense criticism due to the U.S. intelligence community conclusion he likely approved the brutal 2018 murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the government in Riyadh.
Biden defended plans for the stop on Thursday, saying his goal is to promote American interests and reassert U.S. leadership in the Middle East. High gas prices are also viewed as an overriding motivation for the trip.
Here are five questions looming over Biden’s visit.
Will Biden raise Khashoggi’s murder with MBS?
Biden has been an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s murder, going so far as to pledge to make the country a “pariah” while campaigning for president.
That’s a big part of the reason Biden’s decision to meet with the crown prince raised eyebrows and triggered criticism.
Now, Biden faces a tricky choice of whether and how to raise Khashoggi’s murder in his meeting with MBS and other Saudi officials, which could complicate his administration’s efforts to extract commitments from the Saudis on energy production and other issues.
Biden wouldn’t commit to explicitly raising Khashoggi’s murder in the meeting with the crown prince when asked about it on Thursday, saying only that he never shies away from talking about human rights.
“I always bring up human rights,” Biden told reporters. “But my position on Khashoggi has been so clear. If anyone doesn’t understand it in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven’t been around for a while.”
Meanwhile, Khashoggi’s widow, Hanan Elatr, told Spectrum News in an interview this week that White House officials assured her that Biden would bring her late husband’s case up in the meeting with MBS.
Will Biden and MBS shake hands?
There will be plenty of attention on how Biden greets the crown prince during their meeting.
A photo op of the two leaders shaking hands would give a legitimacy boost to the Saudi leader, something the White House is likely keen to avoid.
The White House said going into Biden’s Middle East trip that he would seek to “minimize contact” with other officials due to the rise in COVID-19 variants.
Some speculated that the decision, which the White House cast as a recommendation from Biden’s doctor, would allow the president to avoid shaking hands with MBS.
But almost immediately upon landing in Israel, Biden found it difficult to adhere to the plans. While some like Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid received fist bumps, the president was photographed shaking hands with others, like former prime minister and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
A senior administration official told reporters Wednesday that the White House never put out guidance that there would be no handshakes on the trip and insisted that officials were not focused on the “particular form of greeting” Biden gives to other leaders.
Will Biden make progress on oil?
With high fuel prices, the Biden administration is expected to try to encourage the Saudis to pump more oil and bring the prices lower.
Officials have said that Biden is expected to advance conversations on the trip abroad about oil production, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent prices spiking.
But it’s not entirely clear whether they will have any success, as the Saudis are likely to pursue an oil policy that remains in their best interest regardless of what the Biden administration wants.
Experts told The Hill this week that they expect the visit could bring positive signals or prod the kingdom toward more oil, but is unlikely to result in any major shifts.
Instead, it’s expected to more likely be a jumping off point for dialogue between the world’s two largest oil producers. And, if the Saudis were planning to increase their production anyway, Biden could try to claim credit, as high gasoline prices have been a political liability for months.
What are the prospects of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel?
Biden will arrive in Jeddah having already succeeded in carrying out groundbreaking achievements on advancing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia — the inclusion of “Saudi Arabia” in a joint declaration for relations between the U.S. and Israel that was announced on Thursday, and the direct flight from Tel Aviv to Jeddah that will transport him.
And in a major announcement, ahead of Biden’s flight, Saudi Arabia announced it would open up its airspace to all commercial carriers, ending a prohibition on commercial flights to and from Israel flying over the country.
“This decision is the result of the President’s persistent and principled diplomacy with Saudi Arabia over many months, culminating in his visit today,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. “This decision paves the way for a more integrated, stable, and secure Middle East region, which is vital for the security and prosperity of the United States and the American people, and for the security and prosperity of Israel.”
Biden administration officials have noted it will take time for full normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but nevertheless see Thursday’s announcement on flights as a significant step forward.
The formal inclusion of Saudi Arabia in a bilateral document between the U.S. and Israel and open talk in the international media by Israel’s prime minister would not be possible without blessings from Riyadh, signaling the close communication between U.S., Israeli and Saudi officials on the choreography of Biden’s visit.
Iran closely watching U.S. and Saudi meeting
Iran’s threatening behavior and nuclear ambitions were a leading topic of discussion in Biden’s meetings in Israel and the focus on Iran is expected to continue in Saudi Arabia.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are foes of Iran and have deepened ties, while quiet, over the shared threats they face from Tehran.
Biden on his stop in Israel vowed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, reiterating his administration’s desire to see a return to the Iran nuclear deal but warning that he wouldn’t “wait forever.”
A joint declaration signed by Biden and Lapid said the U.S. “is prepared to use all elements of its national power” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a speech on Thursday warned the U.S. and its allies against committing a “mistake” that would prompt a “harsh and regrettable response” from the Islamic Republic, the Associated Press reported.
“The great nation of Iran will not accept any insecurity or crisis in the region and Washington and its allies should know that any mistake will be met by a harsh and regrettable response from Iran,” Raisi said.
Iranian-backed proxies have targeted U.S. forces in Iraq and have carried out attacks against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their positions on opposite sides of regional conflicts, namely support on the side of the Yemeni government amid that country’s civil war.
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly warned in June that a high threat remains over Iran’s intent to assassinate current and former American officials, according to Yahoo News.
Former secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook maintain federal security from ongoing threats to their lives from Iran, singled out for the Trump administration’s killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.