White House confirms Biden to meet Saudi crown prince in Middle East

President Biden will visit Saudi Arabia in July on a trip that will include a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a senior administration official told reporters Monday night.

The announcement that the president would meet Mohammed had been expected for weeks and has drawn scrutiny from human rights advocates and tacit approval from Democratic allies in Congress.

The meeting is part of a wider trip to the Middle East, between July 13 and 16, where the president will also travel to Israel and the West Bank before flying to Jeddah for the meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The senior official said that Biden’s meeting with the crown prince will take place as part of engagement with “over a dozen leaders,” to include Saudi King Salman, the official leader of the Kingdom. 

The president’s face-to-face with Mohammed marks a stark reversal from Biden’s promise on the campaign trail to make the Kingdom a “pariah” and vowed to make them “pay the price” over the gruesome killing of the dissident Saudi writer and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. 

Biden approved the release of a U.S. intelligence report concluding that Mohammed had approved a plot to “capture or kill” Khashoggi – who was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was killed and dismembered. The president imposed bans on dozens of Saudi officials for the writer’s death.

The senior official on Monday night said that while the administration sought accountability for Khashoggi’s death, it did not seek to “rupture” relations with the Kingdom completely. The official called the crown prince “critical” to extending a ceasefire agreement until at least August in Yemen’s catastrophic seven-year civil war. 

“While we recalibrate relations, we’re not seeking to rupture relations, because Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the United States for eight decades,” the official said, and added that the administration’s strategy is to raise human rights issues “behind closed doors.”

“Human rights is always a part of the conversation… A lot of these conversations, we do hold them behind closed doors, and we think engagement – and that is the best way to get results,” the official said. 

The administration is also intent on working with Saudi Arabia to push back on Iran, which has accelerated activity necessary to build a nuclear weapon while supporting proxy fighting forces that have hit Gulf countries and U.S. military bases in the region with missiles. 

Biden’s meeting with Gulf leaders in Jeddah and his trip to Israel, comes in the wake of a resolution passed by member states of the IAEA last week, the international nuclear watchdog, criticizing Iran for its nuclear activities. 

“While there’s a great deal of work to do, this historic visit to the Middle East comes against that larger backdrop, both globally and in the Middle East region itself,” the official said referring to the IAEA vote itself.

Biden’s trip to Israel will be his first visit to the country as president where the official said the president will reaffirm America’s “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security.

The president will also seek to build on rapprochement between Jerusalem and its Arab and Gulf neighbors through the Abraham Accords, the Trump-era agreement that established ties between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. 

Biden will also travel to the West Bank to visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders, the official said, and reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, 

They will also “discuss the ways in which we might rekindle a new political horizon that can ensure equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and dignity to Israelis and Palestinians alike,” the official said.

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