Joe Biden will visit Israel, the occupied West Bank and Saudi Arabia next month, the White House announced on Tuesday.
The announcement immediately put the administration on the defensive, given the president’s previous stance that the Saudi regime was a “pariah” because of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights abuses.
The White House press secretary, Karin Jean-Pierre, said: “It’s important to … emphasize that while we recalibrate relationships, we are not looking to rupture relationships. But human rights issues [and] human rights conversations [are] something that the president brings up with many leaders and plans to do so.”
Biden will visit Saudi Arabia at the end of the four-day trip, which will begin on 13 July. He plans to meet the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler who US intelligence says probably ordered the killing, dismemberment and disposal of Khashoggi, a US-based columnist for the Washington Post, in Turkey in 2018.
As a candidate for the White House, Biden labeled Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and pledged to recalibrate the US-Saudi relationship. After Biden took office, his administration made clear the president would avoid direct engagement with Prince Mohammed and instead focus on King Salman.
Human rights advocates and some Democrats have cautioned Biden about visiting the oil-rich kingdom, saying such a visit without getting human rights commitments would send a message to Saudi leaders that there are no consequences for egregious rights violations. The Saudis have been accused of using mass arrests, executions and violence to quash dissent.
Prince Mohammed was also close to the Trump administration, particularly to Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and chief adviser. An investment deal struck by Kushner and a Saudi fund is now the subject of an investigation by House Democrats.
But at a time of rising gas prices, growing worries about Iran’s nuclear program and perpetual concern about Chinese global expansion, Biden and his national security team have determined that freezing out the Saudis is not in the US interest.
The Saudi embassy in Washington said Biden would meet King Salman and Prince Mohammed and described the visit as coming at King Salman’s invitation “to strengthen the historical bilateral relations and the distinguished strategic partnership between” the US and Saudi.
The White House announced the trip after Saudi Arabia this month helped nudge Opec+ to ramp up oil production by 648,000 barrels a day in July and August, and the kingdom agreed to extend a United Nations-mediated ceasefire in its seven-year war with Yemen. Biden called the ceasefire decision “courageous.” Prince Mohammed played a “critical role” in brokering an extension of the ceasefire, according to a Biden administration official who spoke to reporters.
Jean-Pierre said King Salman invited Biden to visit the kingdom during a gathering in the port city of Jeddah of the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
“While in Saudi Arabia, the president will also discuss a range of bilateral, regional and global issues with his counterparts. These include support to the UN-mediated truce in Yemen, which has led to the most peaceful period there since war began seven years ago,” Jean-Pierre said.
“He will also discuss means for expanding regional economic and security cooperation, including new and promising infrastructure and climate initiatives, as well as deterring threats from Iran, advancing human rights and ensuring global energy and food security.”
Biden’s first stop will be to meet the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, in Jerusalem. He will then meet Palestinian Authority leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank. Biden will cap the trip in Jeddah.
Bennett is preparing to host Biden while trying to avert another election and the potential return of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and as Iran continues to develop its nuclear program.
Biden is also expected to meet athletes taking part in the Maccabiah Games, a competition that brings together Jewish and Israeli athletes from around the globe.
Israeli officials argue that their security as well as regional stability depend on US relations with Riyadh and other Arab capitals. The administration is also hoping that such visits normalize Israel’s Saudi relations.
Facing questions earlier this month about a potential visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden stressed that the relationship had multiple facets that impact US and Middle East security.
On Tuesday, in a brief exchange with reporters before going to Philadelphia for a labor convention, Biden bristled when asked about his visit to Jeddah, noting that his team had laid out a statement “everything I’m doing in the Middle East”.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism