Biden to visit former ‘pariah’ Saudi Arabia: reports

US President Joe Biden will visit Saudi Arabia this month, reports said Thursday, a stark turnaround for a leader who once called for making the kingdom a pariah.

The announced decision comes hours after Saudi Arabia addressed two of Biden’s priorities by agreeing to increased oil production and helping to extend a truce in war-torn Yemen.

The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, citing unnamed sources, said Biden would continue with the long-talked-about Saudi stoppage on an upcoming trip.

CNN said Biden would meet with Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 36, who has been accused by US intelligence of ordering the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she had no trips to announce, adding only, “The president will seek opportunities for dialogue with leaders in the Middle East region.” .

However, a senior administration official told AFP that if Biden “determines that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with a foreign leader and that such engagement can yield results , then he will.”

Without confirming the trip, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was “no doubt that significant interests are linked to Saudi Arabia”.

The trip would take place around the time Biden travels to a NATO summit in Spain and the Group of Seven summit in Germany later this month.

He is also expected to visit Israel where, as in Saudi Arabia, he is sure to face pointed questions about the slow pace of US diplomacy with the two countries’ rival Iran.

During his bid for president, Biden called for Saudi leaders to be treated as “the pariah that they are” after the ultra-conservative kingdom’s friendly relationship with his predecessor Donald Trump.

Trump had largely shielded Saudi Arabia from consequences after Khashoggi, a US resident who wrote critically about Crown Prince Mohammed in The Washington Post, was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was strangled and dismembered.

And Trump’s son-in-law and top aide, Jared Kushner, had developed a close bond with the prince known by his initials “MBS”, reportedly conversing with him on WhatsApp chats.

Shortly after taking office, Biden released the intelligence report that MBS authorized the killing of Khashoggi and his administration imposed visa restrictions on dozens of Saudis accused of threatening dissidents.

Biden also cut support for a Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen amid revulsion over civilian casualties.

Biden’s announced plan to visit the kingdom has drawn fire from opponents of the Saudi government, including Abdullah Alaoudh, the son of an imprisoned scholar.

“MBS has blood on his hands,” he said in a statement.

“If Biden gives him the American encounter that MBS so desperately wants, the bloody handshake will send a clear message to bullies around the world: you can always count on America to betray its values ​​and reward bad behavior,” added Aloudh.

– MBS says he doesn’t care –

A close partner of the United States since the days of World War II, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly managed to woo administrations in Washington that initially sought greater distance.

U.S. officials were pleasantly surprised on Thursday as major Saudi-led oil producers grouped under OPEC+ agreed to a bigger-than-expected rise in oil output.

A boost in supply could help lower prices at the pump, seen as a major contributor to declining polls for Biden, whose Democratic Party faces a tough congressional election in November.

Officials in Washington said Saudi Arabia was also backing the diplomacy that led Thursday to the extension of a fragile two-month truce between the Riyadh-backed Yemeni government and Iran-affiliated Houthi rebels.

“Saudi Arabia has shown courageous leadership by taking early steps to endorse and implement the terms of the UN-led truce,” Biden said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia also responded to concerns from US officials who saw the kingdom as authoritarian in troubled Lebanon.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, presenting an annual report on religious freedom, hailed “significant recent moves” to increase interfaith dialogue even as he acknowledges the kingdom still bans all public practice of religions other than Islam. Islam.

How to address human rights will likely be a complicated question for Biden, with MBS reportedly angered when US officials previously raised Khashoggi’s murder.

The senior US official played down the controversy, saying there were human rights concerns “like in many countries where we share interests”.

The official said “much” of the concerns about Saudi Arabia’s behavior “predated our administration” and said there “are also strategic priorities that are important to address, and our contacts and our diplomacy have intensified recently”.

In a rare interview earlier this year with The Atlantic, MBS said if Biden understood him: “I just don’t care.”

“It’s up to him to think about America’s interests,” he said with a shrug.

Edward N. Arrington