Joe Biden will reportedly visit Riyadh later this month and meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, abandoning a campaign pledge to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Riyadh trip, first reported by the Washington Post and New York Times, suggests Biden has prioritized his need to bring oil prices down and thereby punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, over his stand on human rights. The visit will be added on to an already planned trip to Israel, Germany and Spain.
The White House said it had no new travel plans to announce, but made clear there was no barrier to Biden meeting the crown prince.
“If he determines that it’s in the interests of the United States to engage with a foreign leader and that such an engagement can deliver results, then he’ll do so,” a senior White House official said. “In the case of Saudi Arabia, which has been a strategic partner of the United States for nearly 80 years, there’s no question that important interests are interwoven with Saudi Arabia. And the President views the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as an important partner on a host of initiatives that we are working on both in the region and around the world.”
The end of the crown prince’s US isolation has looked likely since the Ukraine invasion began on 24 February. Seeking to cut off Russian revenue, Washington has sought an expansion of the global oil supply to bring down prices, which also represented a threat to already poor Democratic prospects in this year’s congressional elections.
The White House reportedly sought to set up a phone call between Biden and Mohammed in March, but was snubbed by the crown prince. However, the president’s top Middle East adviser, Brett McGurk, and his special envoy for energy issues, Amos Hochstein, have persevered in paving the way for a meeting with a string of quiet trips to Riyadh.
The diplomacy helped win agreement for a two-month UN-brokered ceasefire in Yemen, which was extended for a further two months on Thursday. In a statement on the extension, Biden said: “Saudi Arabia demonstrated courageous leadership by taking initiatives early on to endorse and implement terms of the UN-led truce.”
Yemeni civilian casualties from the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign soured the bilateral relationship in recent years and Khashoggi’s murder in 2018 significantly increased the damage. The Trump administration tried to gloss over the problems, but anti-Saudi sentiment became bipartisan in Congress, and on coming to office in 2021, Biden ordered a rethink of ties to Riyadh.
“We were going to in fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” he said in a 2019 Democratic primary debate. Biden also declared that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia”.
Biden will have to pay a political price for the about-turn on Riyadh, particularly from his own side of the aisle, who sees it as a betrayal of the administration’s promise to put human rights at the heart of foreign policy.
“If anyone can explain to me how this reflects the administration’s previously stated commitment to ‘a world in which human rights are protected, their defenders are celebrated and those who commit human rights abuses are held accountable,’ I’d love to hear it, ” said Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders.