President Joe Biden will travel to Israel and saudi arabia next month, despite promising during the 2020 campaign that his administration would make the kingdom to “pariah” state because of its human rights abuses.
In office, Biden has taken a more measured approach to the Persian Gulf ally and world’s largest exporter of crude oil.
As planning for the July 13-16 trip – which the White House announced Tuesday –leaked out in recent weeks, human rights groups and some members of Congress urged Biden to either cancel the trip or to go only under certain conditions.
In response, administration officials have called Saudi Arabia an “important partner” that the United States must engage with to advance its interests, including trying to bring stability and peace to the Middle East.
“I’m not going to change my view on human rights,” Biden told reporters earlier this month when asked about a possible visit to Saudi Arabia. “But as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can… And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
The announcement of Biden’s trip comes as the White House faces intense domestic pressure to address record-high gas prices, a huge liability for Democrats heading into the midterm elections.
Biden will be meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia with the heads of state of nine countries in the region. The White House said the agenda will include infrastructure and climate initiatives, deterring threats from Iran, advancing human rights and ensuring global energy and food security.
Biden is expected “to see” Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s crown prince and de facto ruler, who US officials believe orchestrated the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the royal family. The crown prince has denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s killing.
The White House declined to be more specific about the type of interaction Biden will have with bin Salman.
The White House has insisted that any high-level engagement with Saudi officials is not about convincing the Saudis to increase oil production, which would help bring down gas prices.
“Of course, they will discuss energy with the Saudi government,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday. But to view the trip as being “only about oil” is “simply wrong,” she added.
The only other nation – besides the United States – that produces more oil than Russia is Saudi Arabia. As the US and its allies tries to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, they’re looking for alternative sources of oil.
The Saudi-led OPEC oil cartel and allied oil-producing countries agreed this month to increase production.
When Biden was competing for his party’s presidential nomination, he was asked during a 2019 debate if he would punish Saudi leaders for human rights abuses, including allegedly directing the murder of Khashoggi.
“We’re going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” Biden said. “There’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
Khashoggi, a US resident who had been critical of the Saudi government, was killed inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. Khashoggi had gone to the consulate to get documents he needed for his upcoming wedding.
Shortly after taking office, Biden authorized the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to release its findings on the role bin Salman played in Khashoggi’s murder. The DNI concluded that bin Salman approved the operation “to capture or kill” Khashoggi.
But the White House declined to impose penalties directly on the crown prince.
The administration did announce a new policy, called the “Khashoggi Ban,” to prevent Saudis and others who threaten journalists on behalf of a foreign government from entering the United States.
“And we’ve used it multiple times since,” Jean-Pierre recently told reporters. “At the same time, we thought it was very important to engage Saudi Arabia.”
She pointed to the role the kingdom played recently in extending a truth in the civil war in Yemen, a conflict that has become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Still, more than a dozen human rights groups wrote to Biden this month warning that a visit to Saudi Arabia would “embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law” and “should not come without tangible progress to alleviate some of the most egregious rights violations.”
“Biden’s campaign pledge to treat Saudi Arabia as a `pariah’ was always hard to believe, but the president’s complete retreat from that commitment has demonstrated just how hollow his administration’s human rights rhetoric is,” Daniel Larison, a contributing editor at Antiwar.com , recently wrote in a piece published by Democracy for the Arab World Now.
In Israel, Biden will also have difficult issues to navigate. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes Biden’s efforts to revive a 2015 international deal meant to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The Trump administration shared Israel’s complaint that the deal wasn’t tough enough on Iran and withdrew from it.
The Biden administration has also promised to reopen a consulate to serve Palestinians in Jerusalem, which would reverse another decision by the Trump administration when it moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
As part of Biden’s effort to restore ties with Palestinian leaders nearly severed by the last administration, he will visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, where the administration has opposed Israel’s expansion of settlements.
And to demonstrate the administration’s “ironclad commitment” to Israel’s security, Biden is expected to visit an area in Israel where missile defense systems supported by the US are in use.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism