The promise of more oil increases the odds that Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration praised Saudi Arabia Thursday for its role in a promised boost in oil production and a ceasefire in Yemen, in warm tones that seemed to further heighten the prospects of a Biden trip to Saudi Arabia and a meeting with the kingdom’s once-shunned crown prince.

Biden has been leaning toward making his first trip as president to the Saudi kingdom later this month, a person familiar with the planning told The Associated Press.

Such a visit would be politically tense because it would likely bring the US leader together with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Biden, as a presidential candidate in 2019, vowed to make the crown prince his “outcast” for the murder of a US-based journalist.

In a statement Thursday, Biden struck a very different tone, praising the kingdom’s “courageous leadership” for its role in extending a UN ceasefire in a Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Officials in the Biden administration have been working behind the scenes to mend relations, discussing shared strategic interests in security and oil with their Saudi counterparts, as a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia and Russia has kept global oil supplies tight and prices at the pump painfully high.

Calls by the United States and its allies for OPEC nations to lower production limits in the deal with Russia appeared to pay off on Thursday. OPEC nations announced they would increase production by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August, offering modest relief to the struggling world economy.

Rising crude prices have pushed gasoline to a record high in the US, raising fears that high energy prices could slow the global economy as it emerges from the coronavirus pandemic. Biden and the Democrats face growing voter anger over high prices, making oil supply shortages a major political liability.

In a statement, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre acknowledged what she said was Saudi Arabia’s role “in achieving consensus” among the oil-producing bloc. She also thanked the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq.

“The United States will continue to use every tool at its disposal to address energy price pressures,” Jean-Pierre added.

The White House is weighing a Biden visit that would also include a meeting of the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, according to a person familiar with the White House planning, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss plans yet to be finalized.

Biden would be expected to meet with Prince Mohammed if the visit to Saudi Arabia occurs, according to the person.

Such a meeting could also ease a tense and uncertain period in the partnership between Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and the United States, the world’s leading economic and military power, that has endured for more than three-quarters of a century.

But it also risks public humiliation for the American leader, who in 2019 promised to make a “pariah” of the Saudi royal family for the murder and dismemberment of a US-based journalist in 2018 Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Prince Mohammed’s brutal ways.

Jean-Pierre has declined to comment on whether Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia. He is expected to travel to Europe in late June and could stop in Saudi Arabia to meet with Prince Mohammed, Saudi King Salman and other leaders. If he does, Biden is likely to visit Israel as well.

Israeli officials in their engagement with the Biden administration have insisted on their view that US relations with Arab capitals, including Riyadh, are critical to Israel’s security and overall stability in the region. The visit could also provide an opportunity to start talks on what the administration sees as a longer-term project to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

And while the Biden administration remains concerned about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, advisers to the president credit the Saudis for showing greater restraint in their conflict with Yemen since Biden took office.

White House officials expect criticism from Democratic allies and human rights advocates who accuse Biden of backing down on human rights but suggest that, in the long run, a credible long-term strategy in the Middle East without key leaders in the kingdom it is not sustainable.

Biden, at the start of his presidency, has repeatedly said that the world is at a key moment in history when democracies must show that they can outcompete autocracies. The administration does not want countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia with worrying human rights records to fall into the camp of Moscow and Beijing.

Any Biden meeting with Prince Mohammed includes the possibility of an embarrassing last-minute public rebuff from a still-offended crown prince known for imperious and harsh actions. Since Prince Mohammed became crown prince in 2017, that has included arresting his own royal uncles and cousins ​​as well as Saudi rights advocates and, according to the US intelligence community, directing the assassination. of Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia denies involvement.

Furthermore, any decline by Biden from his impassioned human rights promise during his campaign—that the Saudi rulers would “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s murder—risks further disillusioning Democratic voters. They have seen Biden fight to achieve his national agenda in the face of a strong Republican minority in the Senate.

US officials were recently in the region for talks with Saudi officials about energy supplies, the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran and Saudi Arabia’s stalled war to oust Houthi rebels in Yemen. Fighting there recently calmed down with a ceasefire, which was further extended on Thursday.

Frequent warm visits from Saudi, Russian and Chinese officials during the freeze between Biden and the Saudi crown prince have heightened Western concern that Saudi Arabia is separating itself from Western strategic interests.

In addition to helping keep gas prices high for consumers around the world, the tight supply of oil helps Russia get better prices for the oil and gas it sells to finance its invasion of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the Saudi kingdom on Tuesday.

Officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, see Biden as the latest of several US presidents to neglect the US military’s long-standing protective role in the Gulf, while Washington tries to free itself from the conflicts in the Middle East to focus on China.

Those concerns about Gulf security may be eased by the US move last year to place control of its forces in Israel under US Central Command. That effectively increases interaction between the US-equipped Israel military and Arab forces under the US military umbrella, said Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, now a distinguished member of the Atlantic Council.

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