Biden’s Middle East Trip Is a High-Risk Bid to Reset Saudi Relations

President Biden’s trip to the Middle East this week marks a step toward a more traditional American foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia, as the realities of oil diplomacy and geopolitics prompt him to compromise campaign promises to isolate the kingdom over human rights abuses.

The shift in US priorities has caused US and Saudi officials to have widely differing views on how the visit will play out.

Mr. Biden and his senior aides say they are focused on a summit of Arab nations where the president will meet with several heads of state, rather than a much-anticipated face-to-face meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who remains toxic across much of Washington, especially among Democratic leaders. US officials said the president will meet with 86-year-old King Salman and his leadership team, which includes Prince Mohammed.

However, Saudi officials say there will be substantive exchanges between Prince Mohammed and the president on a range of issues and have described the summit as peripheral.

After promising to punish Saudi Arabia as a candidate for human rights abuses, President Biden is expected to travel to the kingdom in July to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday breaks down five issues leaders are likely to discuss. Photocomposite: Adele Morgan

Riyadh has signaled that it wants to recognize Prince Mohammed’s social and economic reforms and pledge that the US is backing threats from Iran as the Middle East initiative signed by Mr Biden – reviving the 2015 nuclear deal – has fallen into disrepair device. Prince Mohammed wants to settle the controversy over the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which US intelligence ordered of him, a claim he denies.

The president intends to discuss Saudi human rights record, US officials said, underpinning his campaign pledge to treat the country like an outcast. But Saudi officials say they are unlikely to make human rights concessions and are unwilling to abandon an oil-producing alliance with Moscow that the US has blamed in part for soaring oil prices.

Without significant progress on energy or human rights issues, some of the president’s allies fear he could return to the US largely empty-handed and unable to announce new efforts to combat high inflation, which voters are most concerned about ahead of this year’s midterm elections worry. Mr. Biden intends to make the case that the trip is about advancing national interests, US officials said.

The president’s itinerary was still in flux in the days leading up to the four-day summit, US officials said, as his top Middle East adviser traveled to the kingdom last week to finalize details, underscoring the difficulties the trip entails .

Relations with Saudi Arabia have hit rock bottom after Mr Biden last year first refused to work with Prince Mohammed and then Prince Mohammed refused to attend a talk with the President ahead of the Ukraine war. Oil prices soared above $100 a barrel after Russia invaded Ukraine and the Saudis did little to use their capacity to pump more oil to tame the market, despite demands from the US

The shift towards a more traditional US Middle East strategy is being driven in part by the impact of high energy prices on US inflation rates, which is proving to be a significant policy burden for Mr. Biden. Consumer prices rose 6.3% year on year in May, the same as in April but down slightly from 6.6% in March, as measured by the Commerce Department’s personal consumption price index, which was reported on Thursday. The March surge was the fastest since January 1982.

Saudi special forces salute in front of a screen showing images of Saudi King Salman (right) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia in July.


Photo:

Amr Nabil/Associated Press

Mr Biden’s goals now include keeping Saudi Arabia in western orbit and controlling its bias towards Russia and China, US officials said.

“As the government considered its global priorities, Saudi Arabia was relevant to a growing number of them, and a fractious relationship with leadership made a whole range of things around the world more difficult,” said Jon Alterman, program director for the Middle East Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“From a Saudi perspective, a large part of the visit is designed to underscore the importance of the partnership with Saudi Arabia and to refute the notion that the crown prince is a boisterous troublemaker and an impossible partner,” Alterman said.

The president will first travel to Israel, where US officials are hoping to make some headline-grabbing breakthroughs for the trip. While Mr. Biden will meet separately with Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Biden’s visit there will focus less on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more on Israel’s deeper integration with the rest of the Arab world, which is part of a broader one Restructuring is underway as Middle Eastern rivals start talking to each other.

The trip’s biggest announcement could be the transfer of two islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, a long-awaited deal that could include moves toward Riyadh to establish formal ties with Israel, including expanding overflight rights and allowing direct flights for pilgrims , so familiar people the discussions. The possible agreement is still being negotiated, it said. Mr. Biden is also expected to announce new talks between the US and Israel to jointly develop Iron Beam, an experimental laser system intended as a shield against Iran-backed attacks, a US official said.

The focus on building ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel shows how Mr. Biden has slowly embraced one of the most successful components of his predecessor Donald Trump’s approach to Middle East diplomacy. The 2020 Abraham Accords brokered by the Trump administration established formal ties between Israel and the Arab countries.

Saudi Arabia, fearing domestic backlash and criticism in the Muslim world, is unlikely to move quickly towards normalization but has shown some openness. In a symbolic move, Mr Biden plans to fly direct from Israel to Saudi Arabia. Government officials discuss efforts to improve air defense cooperation among regional countries that see Iranian missiles as a threat.

US lawmakers and human rights groups say the president’s trip should be a pivotal moment to pressure the crown prince over human rights. Four senior Senate Democrats wrote a letter to Mr Biden last month, arguing that any interaction with Prince Mohammed would be “deeply disturbing”.

Saudi officials say they reject any such criticism. Prince Mohammed has expanded social liberties, lifted a ban on women driving, ended gender segregation in most public places and castrated the once feared religious police. He has also introduced cinema to the kingdom, facilitated major public music festivals and brought international sporting events to the country.

While the Biden administration made some early human rights concessions over the past year, the kingdom continues to arrest people in an ongoing crackdown on political liberties.

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The youngest is Malik al-Dweish, the son of a Muslim cleric with ties to former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was deposed in 2017 and later jailed for treason. Mr Dweish told The Wall Street Journal last year that his father Suleiman was locked in a palace dungeon and beaten on orders from Prince Mohammed in 2016 after he tweeted a sermon that appeared to offend him. The younger Mr Dweish said he felt he had nothing to lose by speaking up inside Saudi Arabia. He said two of his brothers were arrested after his father’s disappearance.

In January, Mr Dweish said he had been questioned and threatened by State Security over his contact with a Journal reporter. Two weeks before Mr Biden’s visit, he was arrested by Saudi authorities on charges that could not be clarified, people familiar with the matter said.

Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment about Mr Dweish.

write to Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com and Andrew Restuccia at andrew.restuccia@wsj.com

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https://www.wsj.com/articles/bidens-middle-east-trip-is-a-high-risk-bid-to-reset-saudi-relations-11657481150 Biden’s Middle East Trip Is a High-Risk Bid to Reset Saudi Relations

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