scorecardBiden officially announces trip to Saudi Arabia, despite pledging to make the country a 'pariah' over Khashoggi's murder
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Biden officially announces trip to Saudi Arabia, despite pledging to make the country a 'pariah' over Khashoggi's murder

John Haltiwanger   

Biden officially announces trip to Saudi Arabia, despite pledging to make the country a 'pariah' over Khashoggi's murder
PoliticsPolitics4 min read
  • Biden is visiting Saudi Arabia next month following trips to Israel and the West Bank.
  • The president is facing widespread criticism over the trip, given he pledged to punish the Saudis for Khashoggi's murder.

The White House on Tuesday officially announced that President Joe Biden will visit Saudi Arabia next month, despite the fact the president pledged to recalibrate relations with the kingdom and make it a "pariah" over the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi by assassins with ties to the country's de facto leader.

Biden is visiting the Middle East region from July 13 to 16, first traveling to Israel and the West Bank before heading to to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The president "looks forward to this important visit to Saudi Arabia, which has been a strategic partner of the United States for nearly eight decades," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

"While in Saudi Arabia, the President will discuss a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues. 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," the statement added.

The White House statement did not state whether Biden would meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — often referred to as MBS — and did not mention Khashoggi. Meanwhile, a statement from the Saudi embassy said that MBS and Biden would meet and hold "official talks."

Asked by reporters why the White House statement did not mention a meeting between Biden and MBS, who is the de facto ruler of the kingdom, Jean-Pierre said, "Look, the president is going to see over a dozen leaders on this trip...Yes, we can expect the president to see the crown prince as well."

The official confirmation came after reports that Biden would make a trip to Saudi Arabia to discuss the escalating oil crisis linked to the Ukraine war. Bans on Russian petroleum exports have contributed to the soaring costs of gas, with officials seeking more supply from Saudi Arabia as US gas prices average $5 a gallon and are still climbing.

After years of former President Donald Trump protecting MBS from any punishment over Khashoggi's murder, Biden entered the White House vowing a major shift in US policy toward the kingdom while promising to have a foreign policy centered on human rights. Responding to the news of the trip, critics have accused Biden of breaking his promises and allowing MBS to get away with murder.

"President Biden's decision to meet MBS is horribly upsetting to me and supporters of freedom and justice everywhere," Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's fiancée, said in a statement to CNN. Khashoggi, a Saudi national, was murdered by agents of the Saudi government in October 2018. He was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, entering it under the impression he would obtain a document necessary to marry Cengiz.

The president is sending a "pretty powerful signal that it's OK now to do business with MBS," Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat who advised multiple secretaries of state on the Middle East, recently told Insider.

During a presidential debate in November 2019, Biden excoriated Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi's murder and human rights abuses. "I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them," Biden said at the time, adding, "We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are."

"They have to be held accountable," Biden said.

Biden during the debate also said there was "very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia." And alluding to Yemen, Biden said he would "end the sale of material to the Saudis where they're going in and murdering children, and they're murdering innocent people."

The president did take some steps to make good on these promises early on, including by releasing a declassified intelligence report that explicitly implicated MBS in Khashoggi's murder. That said, the Biden administration slapped sanctions on some Saudis in concert with the release of the report, but MBS was excluded.

And though the president vowed to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war, the Biden administration continued arms sales to the kingdom. MBS is the architect of the conflict, which has fostered what the UN has described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

In comments to CNN on Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said he had "mixed feelings" on Biden visiting Saudi Arabia.

"If the president called me, I would say, 'Mr. President, you can't trust these people. Their standards are not our standards, their values are not ours,'" Durbin, the second most powerful Democrat in the Senate, added.

But some also say that Biden's decision to visit the Saudis is a practical decision.

"Statecraft often involves making difficult choices," Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, recently told Insider in comments on Biden's trip.

"The US-Saudi relationship is built on some pretty solid foundations of shared interests," Ibish added. "These are two status quo powers, and Saudi Arabia needs the United States to guarantee its fundamental security, whereas the United States needs a partner in the Gulf region to help secure the energy resources of our major trading partners and the global economy."