Joe Biden will visit Israel, the occupied West Bank and Saudi Arabia next month, the White House said on Tuesday. The announcement immediately put the administration on the defensive, given the president’s previous stance that the Saudi regime was a “pariah” because of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights abuses.
One Saudi human rights campaigner called Biden’s decision to meet the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, a “betrayal”.
A senior Democratic senator said he understood Biden’s need to work with the Saudis to lessen oil prices, and thereby reduce pressure on US consumers, but called Riyadh’s record on human rights an “outrage”.
Questions were also raised about visiting Israel in the aftermath of the fatal shooting, likely by Israeli troops, of Shireen Abu Aqleh, a prominent Palestinian American journalist, in the West Bank last month.
US intelligence believes Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, ordered the killing, dismemberment and disposal of Khashoggi, a US-based columnist for the Washington Post, in Turkey in 2018.
As a candidate for the White House, Biden labeled Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and pledged to recalibrate the US-Saudi relationship. After taking office, the Biden administration made clear the president would avoid direct engagement with Prince Mohammed and focus on King Salman.
Biden will now meet Prince Mohammed in Jeddah at the end of a four-day trip beginning on 13 July.
On Tuesday morning, in a brief exchange with reporters before going to Philadelphia to speak at a labor convention, Biden bristled when asked about his visit to Saudi Arabia, noting that his team had laid out “everything I’m doing in the Middle East” .
The White House press secretary, Karin Jean-Pierre, said: “It’s important to … emphasize that while we recalibrate relationships, we are not looking to rupture relationships. Goal human rights issues [and] human rights conversations [are] something that the president brings up with many leaders and plans to do so.”
The No 2 Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, told CNN that though Biden “has a tough job dealing with gasoline prices and trying to find ways to find new sources and supplies to bring down inflation in the energy sector”, and therefore needed to talk to the Saudis, he himself still had “mixed feelings” about the visit.
The Saudis’ record on human rights, Durbin said, was “an outrage”.
Hala al-Dosari, a prominent Saudi human rights advocate who now lives in the US, told the Associated Press Biden’s decision to meet Prince Mohammed was “a betrayal”.
Al-Dosari also said the visit to Israel could gloss over the fatal shooting of Abu Aqleh, who, according to investigations by news organizations, was probably killed by Israeli fire. Israel has said it will investigate.
Al-Dosari accused the Biden administration of “prioritizing immediate over interests long-term goals of supporting democratic transitions” in Arab countries and “the immediate interests of securing more oil and support for Israel”.
Human rights advocates and Democrats have cautioned Biden that a Saudi visit without human rights commitments would send a message to leaders in Riyadh that there are no consequences for egregious rights violations. The Saudis have also been accused of using mass arrests, executions and violence to quash dissent.
Prince Mohammed was close to the Trump White House, particularly to Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and chief adviser. A $2bn investment deal struck by Kushner and a Saudi fund is being investigated by House Democrats.
But at a time of rising gas prices, growing worries about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and concern about Chinese expansion, Biden and his national security aides have determined that freezing out the Saudis is not in the US interest.
The White House announced Biden’s trip after Saudi Arabia helped nudge Opec+ to increase oil production by 648,000 barrels a day and the kingdom agreed to extend a United Nations-mediated ceasefire in its seven-year war with Yemen.
Biden called the ceasefire decision “courageous”. According to a Biden official who spoke to reporters, Prince Mohammed played a “critical role” in brokering an extension of the ceasefire.
The Saudi embassy in Washington said Biden would meet King Salman and Prince Mohammed and said the visit was at King Salman’s invitation “to strengthen the historical bilateral relations and the distinguished strategic partnership”.
Jean-Pierre said King Salman invited Biden to visit during a gathering in the port city of Jeddah of the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
“While in Saudi Arabia, the president will also discuss a range of bilateral, regional and global issues with his counterparts,” Jean-Pierre said. “These include support to the UN-mediated truce in Yemen, which has led to the most peaceful period there since war began seven years ago.
“He will also discuss means for expanding regional economic and security cooperation, including new and promising infrastructure and climate initiatives, as well as deterring threats from Iran, advancing human rights and ensuring global energy and food security.”
Biden’s first stop will be to meet the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, in Jerusalem. He will then meet Palestinian leaders including Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Biden is also expected to meet athletes taking part in the Maccabiah Games.
The Associated Press contributed to this report