President Biden and his officials are laying the groundwork for a high-profile meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reversing course on the campaign promised to isolate the powerful Gulf leader.
Tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia are at a high over a range of issues, from the Saudi government’s repression of opposition and its role in the killing of a Washington Post opinion journalist, to Riyadh’s actions in the war in Yemen.
Families of victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are also deeply suspicious of the Saudi government and have sought to bring lawsuits against Riyadh.
A source familiar with the potential meeting confirmed to the Hill that discussions are taking place but that it is still in the planning stages. The Washington Post and Associated Press earlier reported on the deliberations in the White House.
The administration views US ties with Saudi Arabia as a practical necessity rather than reflecting shared values and principles. But lawmakers and groups critical of the nation’s human rights record and its disregard for civil liberties and freedoms are likely to voice opposition.
The meeting would largely be focused on convincing Riyadh to release more oil on the market and bring down gas prices that are at sky-high rates, said Samantha Gross, a fellow and director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
“I’m certain that President Biden will ask MBS to increase oil production faster than the OPEC group has been,” she wrote in an email to The Hill, referring to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, where Saudi Arabia is considered a de- de facto leader.
The president could come face-to-face with Prince Mohammed, or MBS, at the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting expected to be held in Riyadh later this month, and that is likely to dovetail with an expected visit by Biden to Israel.
The meeting will send a significant signal that the US acknowledges Prince Mohammed’s role as the powerful, day-to-day leader of Saudi Arabia, and the official successor to his father, the 86-year-old King Salman.
The Saudi government has sent signals it could make some level of accommodation on oil prices.
OPEC+, the larger grouping of OPEC, announced Thursday it would increase petroleum exports by 50 percent for July and August, part of efforts to offset Russian output losses as the European Union looks to ban Moscow’s oil imports to the continent.
The move signals Saudi Arabia’s shifting position as the Biden administration has rallied nations to impose costs on the Kremlin over its war in Ukraine. It would go against agreements between Riyadh and Moscow, which is a member of the OPEC+ group.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Riyadh on Monday, during a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Lavrov reportedly expressed gratitude for Gulf nations holding back from joining US-led sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The potential Biden-MBS summit has already received pushback from September 11 families who say Riyadh must be held accountable for the role Saudi officials allegedly played in the attacks.
Pro-democracy activists are also likely to raise opposition to the meeting, in particular since the Biden administration withheld sanctions on the crown prince over the killing in 2018 of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite US intelligence agencies determining Prince Mohammed authorized a plan to “capture or kill” the opposition writer.
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, the organization founded by Khashoggi, criticized the Biden administration for “kowtowing to a murderous dictator.”
“Biden’s global priorities of defeating authoritarianism and upholding the rule of law — in Ukraine and elsewhere — will be undermined by Biden’s unprincipled, unstrategic approach,” she told The Hill.
Biden is also likely to face pressure from other human rights groups and Democrats who want the US to end all military support to Riyadh over their record of civilians killed by Saudi bombs in Yemen’s civil war.
A bipartisan group of 50 House members on Wednesday introduced a war powers resolution to end unauthorized US support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive airstrikes in Yemen. A companion bill is expected to be introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) next week.
Still, congressional criticism may be dialed down given competing domestic crises — such as rising inflation, exorbitant gas prices and unrelated issues like abortion rights, gun violence and the baby formula shortage. The administration also has delivered on establishing a fragile cease-fire in Yemen.
Lawmakers are also likely to recognize the key role Saudi Arabia plays as a security partner in the region and the need to maintain ties with Riyadh as a counter to overtures by Russia and China.
Saudi Arabia also has deepening relations with Israel and is a counter to Iran.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told The Hill last month that he has concerns over a meeting between Biden and Prince Mohammed.
“[MBS] He is [a powerful leader], but he also has a past that we need to recognize. I have concerns, but I’d want to hear the reasons that [Biden] might meet with him, if he is.”
Administration officials, without confirming the upcoming meeting, say they have succeeded in “recalibrating” the relationship between Washington and Riyadh by putting US interests — on regional security, humanitarian assistance in war zones, and promotion of ties with Israel — front and center.
“Saudi Arabia is a critical partner to us in dealing with extremism in the region, in dealing with the challenges posed by Iran and also, I hope, in continuing the process of building relationships with Israel and its neighbors, both near and further away, through the continuation, expansion of the Abraham Accords,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, referring to the Trump-era normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at The Washington Institute, said that there’s little common ground on both a personal and professional level between Biden and the Crown Prince but that global realities are pushing them together.
“The Saudis, or one should say MBS, is furious that Biden ignores him. And Biden just doesn’t like him — perhaps for good reason,” Henderson said. “He’s just not Biden’s sort of character, which is what’s gone on with the relationship so far. But with Ukraine, and Russia’s action there, means this sort of distancing no longer works.”
Amie Parnes contributed.