Biden’s Middle East Trip Is a High-Risk Bid to Reset Saudi Relations
President Biden’s Middle East trip this week marks a move toward a more traditional American foreign policy with Saudi Arabia, as the realities of oil diplomacy and geopolitics lead him to compromise on campaign promises to isolate the kingdom over human-rights violations.
The shift in U.S. priorities has led to starkly divergent views being put forth by U.S. and Saudi officials over how the visit will unfold.
Mr. Biden and his senior aides say they are focused on a summit of Arab nations where the president will mingle with multiple heads of state, and not on a highly anticipated face-to-face meeting with Saudi Crown
bin Salman, who remains toxic in much of Washington, especially among Democratic leaders. U.S. officials said the president will meet with the 86-year-old King Salman and his leadership team, which includes Prince Mohammed.
Saudi officials, though, say there will be substantial exchanges between Prince Mohammed and the president on a range of topics and have described the summit as peripheral.
Riyadh has signaled it wants acknowledgment of Prince Mohammed’s social and economic reforms and assurances that the U.S. has its back amid threats from Iran, as Mr. Biden’s signature Middle East initiative—reviving the 2015 nuclear deal—stalls. Prince Mohammed wants to put to rest the controversy over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the U.S. intelligence community concluded he ordered in 2018, an allegation he denies.
The president intends to discuss the Saudi human-rights record, U.S. officials said, which underpinned his campaign vow to treat the country like a pariah. But Saudi officials say they are unlikely to make any human-rights concessions and aren’t willing to abandon an oil-production alliance with Moscow, which the U.S. has blamed in part for high oil prices.
Without substantial progress on energy or human-rights issues, some of the president’s allies worry he could return to the U.S. largely empty-handed and unable to tout new efforts to address high inflation, a top concern for voters ahead of this year’s midterm elections. Mr. Biden intends to make the case that the trip is about bolstering domestic interests, U.S. officials said.
The president’s itinerary was still in flux in the days leading up to the four-day summit, U.S. officials said, with his top Middle East adviser traveling to the kingdom last week to finalize details, underlining the difficulties the trip poses.
Ties with Saudi Arabia have reached a low point, with Mr. Biden first refusing to engage with Prince Mohammed last year and then Prince Mohammed declining to participate in a call with the president in the run-up to the Ukraine war. Oil prices soared above $100 a barrel after Russia invaded Ukraine, and the Saudis did little to tap into their capacity to pump more oil to tame the market, despite calls from the U.S.
Driving the shift toward a more traditional U.S. Middle East strategy, in part, is the impact of high energy prices on U.S. inflation rates, which is proving a significant political liability for Mr. Biden. Consumer prices rose 6.3% in May from a year earlier, the same as in April but down slightly from 6.6% in March, as measured by the Commerce Department’s personal-consumption expenditures price index, which it reported Thursday. The March rise was the fastest since January 1982.
Mr. Biden’s goals now include keeping Saudi Arabia in the Western orbit and checking its tilt toward Russia and China, U.S. officials said.
“As the administration looked at its global priorities, Saudi Arabia was relevant to a growing number of them, and having a scratchy relationship with the leadership was making a whole variety of things around the world harder,” said
Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“From a Saudi perspective, a large part of the visit is intended to reinforce the importance of partnership with Saudi Arabia and refute the notion that the crown prince is an impetuous troublemaker and impossible partner,” Mr. Alterman said.
The president will travel first to Israel, where U.S. officials hope to strike some headline-making breakthroughs for the trip. While Mr. Biden will meet separately with interim Prime Minister
and Palestinian President
Mr. Biden’s visit there is focused less on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than Israel’s deepening integration into the rest of the Arab world, part of a broader reshuffle under way as Middle Eastern rivals begin talking to each other.
The trip’s biggest announcement may be the transfer of two islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, a long-awaited deal that could include steps toward Riyadh establishing formal ties with Israel, including expanding overflight rights and allowing direct flights for pilgrims, according to people familiar with the discussions. The potential agreement was still being negotiated, the people said. Mr. Biden is also expected to announce new talks between the U.S. and Israel on the co-development of Iron Beam, an experimental laser system envisioned as a shield against Iran-backed attacks, a U.S. official said.
The focus on building ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel shows how Mr. Biden has slowly embraced one of the most successful components of his predecessor
approach to Middle East diplomacy. The 2020 Trump administration-brokered Abraham Accords established formal ties between Israel and Arab countries.
Saudi Arabia, wary of domestic backlash and criticism within the Muslim world, is unlikely to move quickly toward normalization but has shown some openness. In a symbolic move, Mr. Biden plans to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia. Administration officials are discussing an effort to improve cooperation on air defense among regional countries who view Iranian missiles as a threat.
U.S. lawmakers and rights groups say the president’s trip should be a pivotal moment to exert pressure on the crown prince over human rights. Four top Senate Democrats wrote a letter to Mr. Biden last month, arguing that any interaction with Prince Mohammed would be “profoundly disturbing.”
Saudi officials say they reject any such criticism. Prince Mohammed has expanded social liberties, lifting a ban on women driving, ending gender segregation in most public places, neutering the once-feared religious police. He has also introduced the cinema to the kingdom, allowed large public music festivals and brought international sporting events to the country.
While the Biden administration secured some early concessions on human rights last year, the kingdom continues to arrest people in a continuing clampdown on political freedoms.
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The most recent is Malik al-Dweish, the son of a Muslim cleric with links to former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was ousted in 2017 and later imprisoned on treason allegations. Mr. Dweish told The Wall Street Journal last year that his father, Suleiman, was imprisoned in 2016 in a palace dungeon and beaten on the orders of Prince Mohammed after tweeting a sermon that appeared to insult him. The younger Mr. Dweish said he felt he had nothing to lose by speaking out from inside Saudi Arabia. He said two of his brothers were arrested following his father’s disappearance.
In January, Mr. Dweish said he was questioned and threatened by state security over his contact with a Journal reporter. Two weeks before Mr. Biden’s visit, Saudi authorities arrested him on charges that couldn’t be determined, said people familiar with the matter.
Saudi officials didn’t respond to requests for comment about Mr. Dweish.
—Summer Said in Alexandria, Egypt, contributed to this article.
Write to Stephen Kalin at [email protected] and Andrew Restuccia at [email protected]
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