Policy

White House moves forward with controversial Saudi meeting

Joe Biden/Mohammed bin Salman
Associated Press-Patrick Semansky/Getty Images

The White House is moving forward with a controversial meeting between President Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a dramatic U-turn from the president’s campaign pledge to make the kingdom’s government a “pariah” on the world stage.

Plans for the meeting, slated to occur next month during Biden’s trip to the Middle East, triggered criticism in Washington, where some argued it sent the wrong signal when it comes to human rights abuses and for the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The White House itself left the meeting out of an official statement making it public on Tuesday, which also mentioned that Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia came at the invitation of Saudi King Salman.

A senior administration official confirmed Monday night that the president would meet with Crown Prince Mohammed while in Saudi Arabia but emphasized that it would take place alongside “dozens” of other Gulf leaders. 

Meanwhile, the Saudi Embassy in a statement offered more substantive details about plans for the meeting between Biden and the crown prince, saying the two would hold “official talks” about the bilateral relationship and a range of issues.

Among those issues will be global energy supply. High gas prices exacerbated by sanctions on the Kremlin as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine have vexed the Biden administration, which has turned to countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to boost the global supply in an effort to bring down prices. 

“I think that energy is a very important driver of this sort of reset, rapprochement that this meeting represents,” said Rachel Ziemba, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. 

“Were it not for these energy shortages we’re facing on a global level, I’m not sure the meeting would be happening,” Ziemba said. 

The White House has sent mixed messages about how high energy exports will figure in the conversation between Biden and Saudi leaders, at times suggesting the meeting would not be about assuaging global energy prices. 

Saudi Arabia is the effective leader of OPEC. The group agreed to a modest increase in oil output in July and August, but officials are hoping to see countries like Saudi Arabia put more on the market. 

“While energy security is one important issue, it’s hardly the only one,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday.

Biden and other leaders in the Middle East are also expected to broach Iran, the war in Yemen, and growing relations between Israel and its Gulf and Arab neighbors. 

Saudi Arabia is permitting Biden to fly to the country directly from Israel, a key sign of Riyadh’s warming ties with Jerusalem.

“We have Israel and Saudi Arabia wanting to get onto the dance floor as quickly as they can, but they need to do it with the United States,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at The Washington Institute.

Some critics argue that the Biden administration is sidelining human rights and undermining U.S. security interests in attempting a reset with the Saudis.

“The capitulation of the Biden administration to reestablishing what are in fact very close and dangerous ties to Saudi Arabia is a disappointment, but it’s not really a surprise,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, the organization founded by Khashoggi.

She pointed to the Biden administration’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia last year and the administration’s refusal to sanction the crown prince after publicly releasing an intelligence report showing he ordered Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

John Kirby, who recently left the Pentagon to serve as the White House’s national security spokesman, defended plans for the meeting and insisted during an appearance on CNN that the trip was in the best interest of the American people.

“Saudi Arabia is a key partner in the region in things like counterterrorism, on the war in Yemen, on energy production. There is a lot of national interest here at stake in this trip, and it’s not just about Saudi Arabia and it’s not just even about the Gulf region,” Kirby said. 

While reports for the trip triggered some criticism on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, Democrats in the House and Senate are largely putting their support behind Biden’s Saudi meetings while urging “frank” talk on human rights and energy security and stability. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pressed Biden to insist that those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder and the 2016 hit-and-run of Fallon Smart be held accountable. 

“America does not become more secure by legitimizing authoritarians like Mohammed bin Salman, who has protected perpetrators of violence against Americans and manipulated oil markets to gouge American consumers,” Wyden said in a statement. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), meanwhile, defended Biden’s plans to meet Crown Prince Mohammed, citing the damaging effects on the global energy market by Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

“I think that the visit hopefully will be very serious private discussions with the Saudis about their responsibility within an international community to make sure that there isn’t price gouging and the taking advantage of the war in Ukraine,” he told reporters. 

White House officials have refused to say definitively whether Biden plans to raise Khashoggi’s killing directly in his talks with the crown prince, saying only that he is committed to discussing human rights issues with other world leaders on his trip. 

“Human rights is always part of the conversation in our foreign engagements,” Jean-Pierre told reporters, adding that the administration is not “overlooking” conduct that occurred before Biden took office. She noted the “Khashoggi ban” imposed last year included sanctions and visa bans on Saudi Arabian citizens in response to the murder of the journalist.  

While some Republicans have criticized Biden for the meeting, others hold no qualms against Biden for the decision. Three Republican lawmakers – Reps. Chris Stewart (Utah), Guy Reschenthaler (Pa.) and Lisa McClain (Mich.) — sat down with the crown prince in Riyadh in May.

They met with Crown Prince Mohammed for about 90 minutes and covered a wide range of issues, including the strained relations with the Biden administration, Saudi Arabia’s openness to establishing ties with Israel, closer coordination on countering Iran, and liberalization and modernization efforts in the kingdom. 

“They feel that as allies and partners, we are not giving the Saudis the credit that they are due — and I gotta be honest, I agree with the Saudi position on that,” Reschenthaler told The Hill. 

Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the U.S. having relations with leaders who are accused of human rights abuses is “just the reality of a complicated world.” 

Mike Lillis contributed.

Tags administration Biden Defense economy Energy Inflation Jamal Khashoggi Joe Biden John Kirby meeting Mohammed bin Salman Mohammed bin Salman oil Saudi Arabia–United States relations

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