In reversal, Biden to visit Saudi Arabia, interact with Crown Prince

President will also hold a virtual summit with PM Modi and leaders of UAE, Israel

June 14, 2022 05:46 pm | Updated June 15, 2022 01:37 pm IST - Washington

File photo of U.S. President Joe Biden.

File photo of U.S. President Joe Biden. | Photo Credit: AP

U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia as part of a larger trip to West Asia in July and his visit will involve an interaction with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, was the mastermind behind the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. During his presidential campaign, Mr. Biden had vowed to isolate Saudi Arabia over the killing and make it “pay”.

Mr. Biden’s trip will comprise a visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), on July 13-16, during which time he will also hold a virtual summit level meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the UAE’s President, Mohammed bin Zayed, as part of the I2-U2 (India, Israel, the U.S. and the UAE) country grouping.

In West Asia, the U.S. is engaged in partnerships that include a mixture of countries in the region and those outside, a continuation of the Trump administration’s effort to help build Israel’s links to other countries. The Israel leg of Mr. Biden’s trip, according to a senior administration official, who did not want to be named, was to not just “reaffirm” the U.S.’s “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security but also deepen areas of cooperation across sectors, and enhance Israel’s integration with regional countries, such as in groups that include countries from outside West Asia.

“And in this regard, the President will hold a virtual summit with the I2-U2 heads of state for discussions of the food security crisis, and other areas of cooperation across hemispheres, where the UAE and Israel serve as important innovation hubs,” the official told reporters on a briefing call on Monday. There will also be “side meeting and engagements” which will be announced later.

The President’s trip to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which will follow visits to Israel and the West Bank, is centred around a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus three (GCC + 3). The GCC is an economic and political alliance of six West Asian countries.

“So yes, we can expect the President to see the Crown Prince,” the official said.

On Wednesday, the administration official defended the move saying the engagement with Saudi Arabia had helped yield results — notably a truce to a conflict between a Saudi-led coalition and rebels in Yemen, and an agreement by Saudi Arabia and other OPEC+ states to increase output of oil by 50%, ahead of schedule. Petrol prices in the U.S. and elsewhere have been soaring, and while there has been opposition to Mr. Biden’s visit to the Kingdom from lawmakers, some have suggested he use the relationship to further U.S. interests.

“From the earliest days of our administration, we made clear that U.S. policy demanded recalibration and relations with this important country but not a rupture,” the official said on Monday.

Last week, members of Congress wrote to Mr. Biden asking him to “further recalibrate” the bilateral relationship so it serves American interests. The administration official said Crown Prince Mohammed had played “a critical role” in extending, beyond its initial two months, an April truce with Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Human rights

The President is expected to discuss human rights — a core issue for Democrats — during his time in the region, including in Jeddah. A lot of these conversations are held “behind closed doors” the official said, adding, “And that is the best way to get results.”

The official also pointed to the fact that 30 (of 35) countries had voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, last week, as one of the outcomes of increased U.S. engagement in West Asia. The vote asked Iran to cooperate with U.N. inspectors investigating three undeclared sites.

“Whereas a year and a half ago, it was the United States that was isolated internationally on this important issue,” the official said.

India, Pakistan and Libya had abstained during the vote, while Russia and China had voted against the resolution.

In the West Bank, Mr. Biden will consult with the Palestinian Authority and “reiterate his strong support for a two-state solution, with equal measures of security, freedom and opportunity for the Palestinian people”, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

The administration official said the visit will reinvigorate the U.S.-Palestinian Authority (PA) dialogue and renew the dialogue between the PA and regional countries, especially Israel.

“Of course, when we entered office nearly a year and a half ago, ties between the U.S. government and the Palestinians had been nearly severed,” the administration official said , adding that the administration was now regularly engaging the Palestinian leadership and had, since last year, provided more than half a billion dollars in support for Palestinians since last April.

The Trump administration had slashed more than $500 million in bilateral aid for the West Bank and Gaza and funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. It had also, controversially, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the U.S. Embassy there. The State Department, last Thursday, renamed its diplomatic mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem and said that the upgraded department, would now report directly to Washington.

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