WASHINGTON – President Biden’s much-anticipated trip to Saudi Arabia has been formally set for next month, the White House announced on Tuesday, but officials played down the chances of securing much immediate help in stabilizing energy markets roiled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mr. Biden will make his first trip to the Middle East as president from July 13 to July 16, stopping first in Israel and the West Bank before heading to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the reported mastermind of the brutal 2018 assassination of a Saudi dissident with American ties.
The trip has generated waves of criticism even before it was officially announced. Human rights activists, media figures and even some of Mr. Biden’s fellow Democrats denounced the idea of a president shaking hands with a Saudi leader said to have ordered the killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a leading critic of the royal family who lived in the United States and wrote a column for The Washington Post.
Mr. Biden and his staff have insisted in recent days that the decision to visit Saudi Arabia – effectively relieving it of pariah status – had more to do with security issues than the price of gasoline.
“The commitments from the Saudis do not relate to anything having to do with energy,” Mr. Biden told reporters on Sunday, citing national security concerns. “It has to do with much larger issues than having to do with the energy piece.”
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said on Monday that while energy will be a point of discussion, the relationship between the nations was far more complex than that. “To look at this trip as it being only about oil is not – it would be simply wrong to do that,” she said.
OPEC Plus, the group of oil-producing nations led by Saudi Arabia, already announced this month that it would increase production modestly in July and August, and U.S. officials have said they expect the bloc to ratchet it up even more in the fall. But that commitment has had little effect thus far on the price at the pump, which hit $ 5 a gallon on average in the United States this weekend for the first time.
An official administration who briefed reporters on the president’s trip on condition of anonymity according to White House ground rules said Mr. Biden would meet in Jeddah with Prince Mohammed, the country’s de facto ruler, but would not say whether the president would raise the Khashoggi case.
A formal White House statement announcing the trip mentioned human rights as one of a group of issues expected to come up, along with climate change, Iran’s nuclear program and the war in Yemen.
Ms. Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One on Tuesday that Mr. Biden stood by his previous comments about the Khashoggi killing. “We are not overlooking any conduct that happened before the president took office,” she said.
A statement issued by the Saudi government mentioned many of the same issues as the White House statement, but not human rights or Mr. Khashoggi. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia looks forward to welcoming President Biden and defining the next chapters of our partnership,” the statement said. “The partnership between our two countries,” it added, “is as critical as ever to the promotion of peace, prosperity and stability around the world.”
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the United States and former intelligence chief for the kingdom, pushed back at Washington last week about its criticism, pointing to the prison at Guantánamo Bay, the military abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib during the Iraq War and wrongful convictions in the American justice system.
“These are a few human rights infringements in the US that require not only presidential action but also congressional and Senate adjudication,” he wrote in Arab News. “Members of both houses have been vociferously critical of the kingdom on human rights issues. Those who live in glass houses should not cast stones. ”
Mr. Biden will be traveling to the region at a time of enormous volatility. Negotiations to revive a 2015 pact in which Iran would once again forswear its pursuit of nuclear weapons appear to be faltering, raising fears that Israel might take action on its own, with tacit support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states that also consider Tehran a threat. But Israel’s fragile governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has been teetering, and there is no guarantee it will last even until Mr. Biden’s visit.
At the same time, the president will try to restore America’s place as more of an honest broker between the Israelis and Palestinians after the yearslong pro-Israeli tilt of former President Donald J. Trump and reaffirm America’s support for a two-state solution. Mr. Biden will also meet with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, the first such presidential meeting since Mr. Trump’s 2017 visit before their relationship fractured. Mr. Biden is likely to meet with Mr. Abbas in Bethlehem.
But aides said Mr. Biden would also demonstrate his commitment to Israel’s security, possibly by visiting one of the defensive systems provided by the United States. And he will encourage the growing normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab states under the so-called Abraham Accords kicked off in Mr. Trump’s final months in office.
Aides said Mr. Biden would also participate in a virtual summit meeting with fellow leaders of a new bloc called the I2-U2, which stands for Israel, India, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
While in Jeddah, Mr. Biden will meet with the leaders of nine Arab nations: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, which all belong to the Gulf Cooperation Council, along with Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
In defending the president’s decision to travel to Saudi Arabia after branding it a pariah state, officials said he always meant to recalibrate the relationship rather than rupture it altogether, and insisted he still stood for human rights.
But they emphasized Saudi cooperation in brokering a truce in the long-running war in neighboring Yemen between the Saudi-led coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels, which has shattered the country and left millions hungry and impoverished. The truce, now in its ninth week, was just renewed for another two months, and officials said it illustrated the benefits of American engagement with Saudi Arabia.