White House announces Biden will visit Saudi Arabia, expects to meet crown prince

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After weeks of speculation, the agenda for President Biden’s mid-July Middle East trip is set, and it includes a visit to Saudi Arabia during which he expects to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a senior administration official told reporters.

Why it matters: Biden on the campaign trail vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the kingdom’s human rights record and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. US intelligence concluded MBS ordered the killing — an allegation Saudi officials reject.

  • The Saudi Royal Court issued a statement of its own confirming that Biden would meet the crown prince and his father, King Salman, on July 15 “to discuss areas of bilateral cooperation as well as joint efforts to address regional and global challenges.”

Between the lines: The will-he-won’t-he speculation about a potential meeting with the crown prince has underscored the tension for Biden between realpolitik at a time of tensions with Iran and sky-high oil prices and his desire to put human rights at the forefront of US foreign policy.

  • The US official said at first only that Biden would meet “with our Saudi hosts,” including King Salman, before acknowledging that “we can expect him to see the crown prince.”
  • The official defended the importance of the long-standing US-Saudi relationship, particularly at a time when the US has been pushing the Saudis to help bring down oil prices.
  • The official said the administration had sought a “recalibration in relations” but “not a rupture” because engagement was essential in order to protect the “important interests interwoven with Saudi Arabia.” Thus, the official contended, the visit was “a smart thing to do at the right time.”

Details: Biden’s visit to the Middle East will take place from July 13-16 and include stops in Israel, the occupied West Bank and Saudi Arabia. Israeli officials say he’s expected to land in Israel in the evening local time of July 13.

While in Israel, Biden will visit a military base and discuss emerging technologies like laser-powered missile defense.

  • He’ll also hold a virtual summit with the leaders of India, Israel, the US and UAE, the US official said.
  • Israeli President Isaac Herzog is expected to host Biden for a state dinner on July 14, according to Israeli officials.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed the White House announcement, saying the “US and Israel will be forging agreements set to strengthen the civilian and security cooperation between the two countries and take the US-Israel alliance to new heights.”
  • Bennett also welcomed Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia. “We thank President Biden for his efforts to strengthen the countries’ joint interests and expand regional peace,” he said.

In the occupied West Bank, Biden will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and “reaffirm his lifelong commitment to the two-state solution,” the US official said.

  • That stop could be tense. The Palestinians have been deeply disappointed with the Biden administration’s policies thus far, as Axios has reported.

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Biden will attend a summit with leaders of the six Gulf countries plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.

  • Biden will discuss the truce in Yemen, human rights, economic cooperation and Iran with the Saudis, the official said.

What to watch: Ahead of the visit, the Biden administration has been quietly mediating among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt on a potential deal to transfer two strategic islands in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty, as Axios first reported.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with statements from Saudi and Israeli officials.

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