Biden lays the groundwork for a risky meeting with the Saudis

President Biden and his officials are laying the groundwork for a high-profile meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reversing course on a campaign promise to isolate the powerful Gulf figure.

Tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia are at an all-time high over a range of issues, from the Saudi government’s crackdown on the opposition and its role in the murder of a Washington Post opinion reporter, to the Riyadh’s role in the war against Yemen.

The families of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks are also deeply suspicious of the Saudi government and have tried to bring lawsuits against Riyadh.

A source familiar with the potential meeting confirmed to The Hill that discussions are taking place, but it is still in the planning stages. The Washington Post and the Associated Press previously reported on the White House deliberations.

The administration views US ties with Saudi Arabia as a practical necessity rather than reflecting shared values ​​and principles. But lawmakers and groups critical of the Kingdom’s human rights record and its disregard for civil liberties and liberties are likely to voice opposition.

The meeting will largely focus on convincing Riyadh to release more oil to the market and reduce skyrocketing gasoline prices, said Samantha Gross, fellow and director of the Climate and Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

“I am sure that President Biden will ask MBS to increase oil production faster than the OPEC group has done,” she wrote in an email to The Hill, referring to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, where Saudi Arabia is considered a de facto leader.

The president could meet Prince Mohammed, or MBS, face-to-face at the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting expected to take place in Riyadh later this month, and it is likely to coincide with an expected Biden visit to Israel. .

The meeting will send a significant signal that the United States recognizes Prince Mohammed’s role as Saudi Arabia’s powerful day-to-day leader and the official successor to his father, 86-year-old King Salman.

The Saudi government has sent signals that it might make some level of accommodation in oil prices.

OPEC+, the largest OPEC group, announced on Thursday that it would increase oil exports by 50 percent for July and August, as part of efforts to offset Russian production losses as the European Union seeks to ban oil exports. oil imports from Moscow to the mainland.

The move signals Saudi Arabia’s shift in position as the Biden administration has brought nations together to impose costs on the Kremlin for its war in Ukraine. It would go against the agreements between Riyadh and Moscow, which is a member of the OPEC+ group.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Riyadh on Monday during a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Lavrov reportedly expressed his gratitude for Gulf nations refusing to join US-led sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The potential Biden-MBS summit has already drawn pushback from 9/11 families who say Riyadh must be held accountable for the role Saudi officials allegedly played in the attacks.

Pro-democracy activists are also likely to oppose the meeting, particularly since the Biden administration withheld sanctions on the crown prince for the 2018 murder of US journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite US intelligence agencies they determined that Prince Mohammed authorized a plan to “capture or kill” the opposition writer.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, the organization Khashoggi founded, criticized the Biden administration for “bowing down to a murderous dictator.”

“Biden’s global priorities of defeating authoritarianism and upholding the rule of law, in Ukraine and elsewhere, will be undermined by Biden’s unprincipled, strategyless approach,” he told The Hill.

Biden is also likely to face pressure from other Democrats and human rights groups who want the United States to end all military support for Riyadh over its record of killing civilians by Saudi bombs in Yemen’s civil war.

A bipartisan group of 50 members of the House on Wednesday inserted a war powers resolution to end unauthorized US support for Saudi offensive airstrikes in Yemen. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is expected to introduce a companion bill next week.

Still, congressional criticism may be toned down given competing domestic crises such as rising inflation, skyrocketing gasoline prices and unrelated issues like abortion rights, gun violence and baby formula shortages. The administration has also complied with establishing a fragile ceasefire in Yemen.

Lawmakers are also likely to recognize the key role Saudi Arabia plays as a security partner in the region and the need to maintain ties with Riyadh as a counter to Russian and Chinese proposals.

Saudi Arabia has deepening relations with Israel and is a counter to Iran.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told The Hill last month that he is concerned about a meeting between Biden and Prince Mohammed.

“[MBS] He’s [a powerful leader], but it also has a past that we must acknowledge. I have concerns, but I’d like to hear the reasons why [Biden] could meet him, if he is.

Administration officials, without confirming the upcoming meeting, say they have succeeded in “recalibrating” the relationship between Washington and Riyadh by putting US interests on the line.

“Saudi Arabia is a critical partner for us in dealing with extremism in the region, in dealing with the challenges posed by Iran, and also, I hope, in continuing the process of building relations with Israel and its neighbors, both close and distant. through the continuation, expansion of the Abraham Accords,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, referring to the Trump-era normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute, said there is little common ground both personally and professionally between Biden and the Crown Prince, but global realities are pushing them together.

“The Saudis, or should I say MBS, are furious that Biden ignores him. And Biden just doesn’t like him, maybe for good reason,” Henderson said. “It’s just not Biden’s type of character, which is what has happened with the relationship so far. But with Ukraine and Russia’s action there, it means that this kind of distancing doesn’t work anymore.”

Amie Parnes contributed.

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