Biden to visit Mideast, meet controversial Saudi leader

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US President Joe Biden will make history next month with a direct flight between Israel and Saudi Arabia where he will meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, abandoning efforts to ostracize the oil kingdom's de facto leader over the murder of a dissident.

The White House ended weeks of speculation Tuesday, announcing that Biden will travel to Israel, the Palestinian West Bank and Saudi Arabia from July 13-16.

This will be Biden's first trip to the Middle East as president and in addition to meetings with individual leaders in all three places, he will attend a regional Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Saudi Arabia.

There is widespread expectation that Biden hopes to secure a boost in Saudi oil production, in an attempt to tame spiralling fuel costs and inflation at home ahead of midterm congressional elections in which his Democratic party risks a drubbing.

Whatever the outcome, his meeting with the crown prince, often referred to as MBS, will mark a controversial policy shift.

As a presidential candidate, Biden said the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi -- a Saudi-born US resident known for writing critical articles about Saudi rulers in The Washington Post -- had made the country a "pariah."

US intelligence findings released by the Biden administration identified MBS as the mastermind of the operation.

While the White House confirmed that "energy security" will be a topic in Saudi Arabia, officials stressed that the whole trip has broader diplomatic aims.

Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre emphasized that "this visit to the Middle East region culminates months of diplomacy," as opposed to being driven by recent domestic political concerns.

Biden will engage with nearly a dozen leaders during the brief yet intense journey, demonstrating "the return of American leadership," a senior US official told reporters.

- Re-establishing Palestinian links -

The tour starts with meeting Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Israel, a country Biden first visited nearly 50 years ago as a young senator.

There will be emphasis on the lavish US support for Israel's armed forces, including the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, at a time of tension over the ongoing failure to resurrect an international pact curtailing Iran's nuclear development.

"While in Israel, the president will likely visit an area where these defensive systems are utilized, as well as discuss new innovations between our countries that use  laser technologies to defeat missiles and other airborne threats," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The president will reaffirm the ironclad commitment to Israel's security."

Biden will meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, likely in Bethlehem, the US official said.

Biden will stress "his lifelong commitment to a two state solution" for Palestinians and Israelis and restore US ties with Palestinians that were "nearly severed" under his predecessor Donald Trump.

- History and controversy -

The part of the trip that will make history -- and generate the most chatter -- comes at the end.

Biden's flight from Israel to Jeddah will be the first by a US president from Israel to an Arab state that does not recognize the country. In 2017, Trump made the journey in reverse.

Once there, Biden will attend the Gulf Cooperation Council with leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as being joined by the leaders of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, the US official said.

A priority for Biden will be maintaining the recently extended truce in Yemen, as well as deterring Iran, "advancing human rights, and ensuring global energy and food security," the official said.

Biden will also join a virtual summit of the so-called I2-U2 diplomatic group of India, Israel, the UAE and the United States, with focus on "the food security crisis" sparked by Russia's invasion of major agricultural exporter Ukraine.

However, the most closely watched meeting will be between Biden and MBS.

"We can expect the president to see the crown prince," the US official said, while rejecting the notion that Biden was retreating from his principles.

"US policy demanded recalibration of relations" after the Khashoggi murder, "not a rupture," the official said.

The official pointed out that Saudi Arabia has been a strategic US partner for eight decades and is home to some 70,000 Americans.

The visit, according to the official, is "the smart thing to do at the right time and offers opportunity for significant gains for the United States, for Saudi Arabia, for the Middle East region."

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