Biden to visit former ‘pariah’ Saudi Arabia as White House praises crown prince

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Gulf Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Dec 14, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Joe Biden will visit Saudi Arabia this month, reports said on Thursday (June 2), a stark reversal for a leader who once called for the kingdom to be made a pariah.

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

The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, quoting anonymous sources, said that Biden would go ahead with the long-rumoured Saudi stop on an upcoming trip.

CNN said that Biden would meet Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, 36-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was accused by US intelligence of ordering the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The White House had on Thursday taken the rare step of recognising the role played by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince in extending a ceasefire in Yemen.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the prince and Saudi King Salman deserved credit for their roles in the truce extension announced earlier in the day.

"This truce would not be possible without the cooperative diplomacy from across the region. We specifically recognise the leadership of King Salman and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in helping consolidate the truce," she said.

As recently as Wednesday the White House said Biden still felt bin Salman was a "pariah" for what US intelligence says was his role in the killing and dismembering of Washington Post journalist Khashoggi in Turkey.

Sources familiar with the process say Biden's visit would be aimed at bolstering relations with Saudi Arabia at a time when Biden is trying to find ways to lower high gasoline prices in the United States.

Biden is aiming to participate in a Riyadh summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional union whose members are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, sources said.

Jean-Pierre would not confirm the Biden trip is planned but said: "What the president is focused on first and foremost is how his engagements with foreign leaders advance American interests. That's as true with Saudi Arabia as anywhere else."

A senior administration official told AFP that if Biden “determines that it’s in the interests of the United States to engage with a foreign leader and that such an engagement can deliver results, then he’ll do so.”

While not confirming the trip, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was “no question that important interests are interwoven with Saudi Arabia”.

The trip would reportedly happen around the time Biden travels to a Nato summit in Spain and Group of Seven summit in Germany this month.

Further enhancing the prospects for a Biden trip was a decision by OPEC+ to increase its oil production by 200,000 barrels in July and August, a move welcomed by the White House.

"We recognise the role of Saudi Arabia as the chair of OPEC+ and its largest producer in achieving this consensus amongst the group members," Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

The murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sparked a furore in the West and tainted Prince Mohammed's image as a reformist.

The Saudi government has denied any involvement by the crown prince in the murder of Khashoggi.

While running for president, Biden called for Saudi leaders to be treated as “the pariah that they are” after the ultraconservative kingdom’s chummy 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 over WhatsApp chats.

Shortly after taking office, Biden released the intelligence report that said MBS authorised Khashoggi’s killing and his administration imposed visa restrictions on dozens of Saudis accused of threatening dissidents.
Biden also scaled back support from a Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen amid revulsion over civilian casualties.

MBS says doesn’t ‘care’

The Saudi government has denied any involvement by the crown prince in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. PHOTO: AFP

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

US officials were pleasantly surprised on Thursday as major oil producers led by Saudi Arabia grouped under OPEC+ agreed to a larger than expected hike in oil production.

A rise in supply could help bring down skyrocketing prices at the pump, seen as a major contributor to sagging poll numbers for Biden whose Democratic Party faces difficult congressional elections in November.

Officials in Washington said that Saudi Arabia was also supportive in diplomacy that led on Thursday to the extension of a fragile two-month truce between Yemen’s Riyadh-backed government and Iranian-affiliated Huthi rebels.

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

Saudi Arabia has also addressed concerns of US officials who saw the kingdom as overbearing in troubled Lebanon.

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

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

The senior US official downplayed the controversy, saying that there were concerns over human rights “as with many countries where we share interests.”

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

In a rare interview earlier this year with The Atlantic, MBS said of whether Biden understood him: “Simply, I do not care.” “It’s up to him to think about the interests of America,” he said with a shrug.

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