In shift, Biden will reportedly meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as US seeks replacement to Russian oil.
United States President Joe Biden is set to visit Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks amid a larger shift in tone towards the kingdom, according to multiple reports.
The trip signals the most distinct departure to date from the Biden administration’s pledges to “recalibrate” ties with longtime ally Saudi Arabia for alleged human rights abuses. Biden called the country a “pariah” in 2019.
News of the visit comes as the US has increasingly turned to Riyadh and other major fossil fuel producing countries in an effort to replace Russian oil and stabilise global markets following the invasion of Ukraine.
There are concerns that high prices at the gas pump could hurt Biden’s Democratic party in the upcoming midterm elections, in which it will fight to maintain majorities in the US House of Representatives and Senate.
The reported trip will be added to a planned visit to Israel and Europe in June, unnamed US officials told multiple outlets, although details were still being hammered out.
Biden is also set to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) during the visit, according to multiple reports.
In 2021, a US intelligence report directly implicated MBS in the 2018 killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh has rejected the findings.
In the wake of the report, Washington indicated that Biden would not be dealing with MBS directly going forward, as his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, had done, but would only engage directly with his counterpart, King Salman.
Prior to taking office, Biden had said in a 2019 debate that as president he would make Saudi Arabia “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s killing, “and make them in fact the pariah that they are”.
The White House has struck a distinctly different tone in recent months, with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Thursday praising “the leadership of King Salman and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia” in the extension of a truce between warring sides in Yemen.
In a statement on Thursday, Jean-Pierre also acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s role in “achieving consensus” within OPEC+ following the bloc’s announcement it will pump more oil amid skyrocketing energy costs around the world.
White House officials expect criticism from Democratic allies and human rights advocates charging Biden is backtracking on human rights, a source familiar with the trip told the Associated Press.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch Program Director Sari Bashi said the visit makes “a mockery of a commitment to make human rights a pillar of US foreign policy”.
A day earlier, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to a Washington audience, defended the Biden administration’s approach.
He said Biden’s intent coming into office was to “recalibrate the relationship with Saudi Arabia and to make sure that that relationship was serving our own interests as well as our values as we move forward – but also preserving it”.
“And that’s largely what we’ve done,” Blinken said.
US officials were recently in the region for talks with Saudi officials about energy supplies, Biden administration efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, and the war in Yemen.