Biden’s visit to the Middle East will be fraught, and deeply consequential
WASHINGTON — President Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territory of the West Bank next month, the White House said on Tuesday. During the trip, he will confront a bevy of overlapping issues, including energy production, human rights and the future of a Palestinian state.
The trip will begin in Israel on July 13 and continue for four days.
Biden “will also meet with counterparts from across the region to advance U.S. security, economic, and diplomatic interests,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement announcing the trip.
A trip to the Middle East had been in the works since last month, and the White House has faced intense questioning about how it would keep its commitments to human rights in dealing with Saudi Arabia, whose vast oil reserves afford leverage over the United States.
On Monday, Jean-Pierre rejected the notion that Biden was heading to Saudi Arabia to ask the petroleum-rich nation to help lower energy costs by increasing the number of oil barrels it releases on the global market. Framing the trip as an effort to bring down domestic energy prices was “simply wrong and a misunderstanding of both the complexity of that issue and our multifaceted discussions with the Saudis,” she said during a press briefing.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is the effective leader of the oil-producing consortium known as OPEC Plus, making it implausible that energy would not be a primary topic of discussion. Jean-Pierre acknowledged as much, even as she and the president have attempted to paint the trip as more than just a plea to pump more oil in order to compensate for shortfalls stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
OPEC Plus announced it would increase oil production earlier this month.
Biden is in an especially uncomfortable position because he has portrayed himself as a leader on human rights and democracy, especially when it comes to the abuses committed by the Kremlin against its own people and in Ukraine. He has also spoken about the rise of authoritarianism at home.
Saudi Arabia is a kingdom where the rights of women, members of the LGBT community and other minorities are severely repressed. And the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is widely suspected to have ordered the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul four years ago.
In its announcement of the trip, the White House highlighted that the president was invited by Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the nation’s ailing king. In truth, the crown prince — known colloquially as MBS — is widely believed to wield the true power in the kingdom.
Biden is expected to meet with MBS. “We’re not shying away from that,” White House spokesman John Kirby said on MSNBC on Tuesday morning.
On Monday, Jean-Pierre said she was "going to just let [the president's] word stand” on whether he would confront Saudi leaders about the killing of Khashoggi, who lived and worked in the United States.
In 2019, when he was in the midst of seeking the presidency, Biden vowed to “make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” Earlier in his administration — well before inflation became an existential threat to his presidency — he released an intelligence report that plainly pointed the finger at MBS for the Khashoggi killing, which took place after the dissident journalist was lured inside a Saudi consulate in the Turkish capital.
In response to the report, the State Department banned 76 Saudi nationals from the United States, in what has come to be casually known as the Khashoggi ban.
But with oil prices spiking as a result of several factors — increased demand, coupled with an aversion to Russian supply from much of the West — the world’s second most prolific producer of oil (the U.S. is first; Russia is third) holds immense sway.
“I do think the desperation of the trajectory of the global economy is driving everything," a government official told CNN earlier this month, describing the Biden administration as “desperate.”
The White House said Biden and Saudi leaders would discuss the kingdom’s war with Yemen, as well as the persistent regional threat that is Iran.
In what appears to be an effort to mitigate the complexities of the Saudi relationship, Biden will begin his trip in Israel, where he will “reinforce the United States’ ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity,” according to the White House statement announcing the trip.
Former President Donald Trump was a loyal ally to the Jewish state, moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which was cheered by political conservatives in both the U.S. and Israel. He also fostered the so-called Abraham Accords, which brought Israel into closer partnership with some of its Arab neighbors.
The issue of Palestinian statehood remains one that no president has come even close to solving. President Barack Obama visited the West Bank in 2013, but his attempts at a peace deal were halting and came to naught.
During his visit to the West Bank, Biden will “consult with the Palestinian Authority” and “reiterate his strong support for a two-state solution, with equal measures of security, freedom and opportunity for the Palestinian people.”
It is not clear if he will raise the issue of Shireen Abu Akleh, a journalist who holds U.S. citizenship and was reporting in the West Bank for Al Jazeera in May when she was killed by Israeli soldiers.