US president Joe Biden will meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and leaders from nearly a dozen countries on a trip to the Middle East next month, senior administration officials said.
Biden will make stops in Israel, the occupied West Bank and Saudi Arabia during the July 13 to 16 visit, where he will focus on regional and energy security and expanding Israel’s integration in the region, among other issues, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. He will meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders and repeat his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The announcement formalises Biden’s U-turn on Saudi Arabia, which he deemed a pariah state while campaigning for the presidency following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. US intelligence concluded that Prince Mohammed, as the kingdom’s day-to-day leader, must have authorised the operation against Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Prince Mohammed blamed rogue agents for the killing.
After entering the White House, Biden said he would engage with King Salman, not Prince Mohammed, unlike former president Donald Trump.
However, rising oil prices, high inflation and Washington’s desire to see Saudi Arabia align with it in relation to Russia and China have helped fuel months of diplomacy aimed at resetting ties.
“While we recalibrate relations, we’re not seeking to rupture relations, because Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the United States for eight decades,” a senior administration official said. “We share a host of interests with Saudi Arabia, from containing Iran to counter-terrorism to helping protect its territory.”
The official said the gathering in Saudi Arabia, which will include other countries, would be a chance to discuss support for a truce that has halted fighting in a seven-year war in Yemen, expanding regional economic and security co-operation, deterring threats from Iran and ensuring global energy and food security.
In Jeddah, Biden will meet the heads of state of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain — along with the leaders of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
He will also hold meetings with senior Saudi officials including Prince Mohammed in what will be the first contact between the pair since Biden took office. The administration official said Biden would raise human rights issues in those meetings and others on the trip.
While some Democrats have criticised Biden’s willingness to visit Saudi Arabia without holding its government accountable after Khashoggi’s murder, the administration has defended the trip.
Ahead of the visit Opec+ agreed to accelerate oil production and Saudi Arabia helped extend a truce in Yemen, which senior administration officials said were direct fruits of close contacts. They promised further results in the coming weeks.
Saudi Arabia has drawn widespread criticism for its military operations in Yemen after it led an Arab coalition that intervened in the impoverished country’s civil war in 2015. The Saudi-led coalition has been battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels, which ousted the Yemeni government and have fired hundreds of missiles and drones into Saudi Arabia.
Biden’s visit to Israel will also come at a tumultuous moment, as prime minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition teeters on collapse and may fall before he arrives.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, whom Biden will probably meet in Bethlehem, is also frustrated with what Palestinian officials see as a lack of follow-through on restoring previous relations with Washington. Trump infuriated Palestinians by reversing decades of American policy by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closing the consulate in the holy city — which had effectively served as a diplomatic mission for Palestinians — and cutting funding to the UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees.
Biden will also hold a virtual summit in Israel with the leaders of Israel, India and the UAE in what the senior administration official described as a new diplomatic grouping. The UAE became the first Gulf country to formalise relations with Israel when it agreed to full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state in 2020.