As gas prices soar, Biden reflects on visit to Saudi Arabia

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is considering a trip to Saudi Arabia – a trip that would likely bring him face to face with the Saudi crown prince he once shunned as a killer.

The White House is planning a visit to Saudi Arabia that would also include a meeting of the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, according to someone familiar with White House planning. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the plans which have not yet been finalized.

It comes at a time when overriding U.S. strategic interests in oil and security have prompted the administration to rethink the independence stance Biden has pledged to take with the Saudis as a House candidate. White.

Any meeting between Biden and de facto Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a Biden visit to the Middle East could offer hope of some relief to American gasoline consumers, who grimace as a global supply of squeaky oil drives prices up. Biden is expected to meet Prince Mohammed, who is often referred to by his initials, MBS – if the Saudi visit takes place, according to the person familiar with the deliberations.

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Such a meeting could also facilitate one of the most difficult and uncertain times in a partnership between Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, and the United States, the world’s largest economic and military power, which represents more three quarters of a century.

But it also risks publicly humiliating the US leader, who in 2019 pledged to make a “pariah” of the Saudi royal family over the 2018 murder and dismemberment of US journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a media critic for many brutal ways that Prince Mohammed operates.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Wednesday declined to say whether Biden would visit Saudi Arabia. Biden is expected to visit Europe at the end of June. He could tack on Saudi Arabia to meet Prince Mohammed, Saudi King Salman and other leaders. The president would also likely visit Israel if he extends future trips to include Saudi Arabia.

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Last week, the White House confirmed that NSC Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, senior energy security adviser at the State Department, were recently in the region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by telephone with his Saudi counterpart on Monday.

McGurk and Hochstein, along with Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen, have traveled to Saudi Arabia several times for talks with Saudi officials on energy supplies, the Biden administration‘s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and the Saudi war in Yemen, recently calmed by a ceasefire.

For Biden, the political dangers of offering his hand to Prince Mohammed include the potential for an embarrassing last-minute public rebuff from an ever-offended crown prince known for his imperious and harsh actions. Since Prince Mohammed became crown prince in 2017, this has included detaining his own royal uncles and cousins ​​as well as Saudi rights activists and, according to the US intelligence community, directing the murder of Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia denies any involvement of the crown prince.

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Still, Biden was ready to greet the prince at last October’s G20 summit in Rome, but Prince Mohammed did not attend.

And any step back by Biden from his passionate commitment to human rights — Saudi leaders would “pay the price” for killing Khashoggi, Biden swore on the debate stage during his campaign — risks further disillusioning the public. Democratic voters. They saw Biden struggling to accomplish his national agenda against a strong GOP minority in the Senate.

Democrats now seem less vocal in demanding that the United States take a hard line with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. Near-record gas prices are hurting their prospects in November’s midterm elections.

One of the Saudi government’s top critics in Congress, Representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia, said in an email that the United States “should reassess its unconditional support for Saudi Arabia.” But he and other Democrats are not publicly telling Biden he shouldn’t meet Prince Mohammed.

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Lawmakers in particular point to Saudi Arabia’s refusal despite months of Western calls to deviate from an oil production cap negotiated largely between the Saudi kingdom and the Russian oil producer. The production cap comes on top of oil supply shortages resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron have privately urged Biden to work to ease US-Saudi relations, as has Israel, which sees the kingdom as a key player in countering Iran.

In addition to helping to keep gas prices high for consumers around the world, tighter supply is helping Russia get better prices for the oil and gas it sells to fund its invasion. Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited the Saudi kingdom on Tuesday, even as talk of a possible meeting between Biden and Prince Mohammed increased in Washington.

Frequent and warm visits by Saudi, Russian and Chinese officials during the freeze between Biden and the Saudi crown prince have heightened Western fears that Saudi Arabia is breaking with Western strategic interests.

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For decades, the United States has ensured that U.S. or allied aircraft carriers, troops, trainers, and missile batteries remain deployed in the defense of Saudi Arabia and its oil fields, and for the defense of the other Gulf States. The military engagement recognizes that a stable global oil market and a Gulf counterbalance to Iran are in the strategic interests of the United States.

From Saudi Arabia, the United States is seeking “real assurances that it is going to be firmly aligned with the United States internationally, and not drift or hedge trying to have comparable relations with Russia and China. It goes beyond oil,” said Dan Shapiro, former US ambassador to Israel. Shapiro is a supporter of the bilateral Abraham Accords that helped forge closer ties between some Arab states and Israel.

“The United States needs to be confident that it will provide those security guarantees and it has a real partner who will be like a partner,” said Shapiro, now a distinguished member of the Atlantic Council.

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Officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for their part, often see Biden as the latest of several US presidents to overlook the US military’s longtime protector role in the Gulf, as Washington tries to extricate itself. conflicts in the Middle East to focus on China. .

These Gulf security concerns may be alleviated by the US decision last year to place control of its forces in Israel under US central command. This effectively increases interaction between the US-equipped Israeli military and Arab forces under the US military, Shapiro said.

Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman visited the CENTCOM headquarters in Florida last month. Regional coordination was a key topic, including, Shapiro said, the possibility of measures such as coordinating Middle Eastern air defense capabilities.

Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan also met with the Saudi defense official last month. Sullivan said he was talking about energy. CIA Director William Burns visited Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia in April.

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Biden administration officials bristle at the idea that enhanced engagement is simply about getting the Saudis to help lower gas prices. Jean-Pierre said last week after McGurk and Hochstein’s recent trips to the region that the idea that the White House is asking the Saudis to pump more oil “is simply wrong” and “a misunderstanding both about the complexity of this issue, as well as our multifaceted discussions with the Saudis.

“The president’s words still stand,” she added Wednesday, of Biden’s promise that the Saudis would “pay a price.”

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Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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