Biden in Israel and Saudi Arabia: A look ahead

Rush Hour

CHICAGO (NewsNation) — President Joe Biden will depart Tuesday night to visit Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia — his first time in the Middle East since taking office last year.

While Biden has previously visited the region, this trip presents the challenge of convincing constituents and proponents alike that diplomacy can be achieved between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, in particular, as he’s been met with controversy for agreeing to meet with leaders of the oil-rich country.

The president is scheduled to meet with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as he’s often called, the oil-rich kingdom’s de facto leader who U.S. intelligence officials determined approved the 2018 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.

“It’s really, really scary to see the president of the United States go to meet with somebody who we know ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and a very public and very, like, gruesome murder, the way that it was done and conducted in a diplomatic facility. That’s scary,” Bethany Alhaidari of The Freedom Initiative told NewsNation’s “Rush Hour” on Monday.

“A lot of them have taken the stance. OK, this meeting is happening. It’s US politics as usual, but can at least something be done for our family members?” she continued.

Biden had pledged as a candidate to recalibrate the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, which he described as a “pariah” nation after Trump’s more accommodating stand, overlooking the kingdom’s human rights record and stepping up military sales to Riyadh — sentiments he reiterated when defending his visit earlier this month.

“As president, it is my job to keep our country strong and secure. We have to counter Russia’s aggression, put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world,” he said in an op-ed titled “Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia” that was published in The Washington Post.

Along with countering Russian aggression, the Biden administration will be looking tackle these diplomatic concerns in the area:

Israeli-Arab relations

Biden will become the first U.S. president to travel directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia. The gesture is significant in that it could become an incremental step to eventually allowing Israeli commercial flights to cross over the kingdom en route to other countries nearby.

Under President Donald Trump, Israel normalized relations with countries such as the United Arab Emirates through the Abraham Accords. 

The itinerary is a reflection of friendlier relationships between Israel and its Arab neighbors, a tectonic shift that is reshaping the region’s politics.

Human rights

As aforementioned, the treatment of journalists will also be a focal point when Biden visits Saudi Arabia. U.S. intelligence believes that the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, likely approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based writer for The Washington Post who was critical of the regime.

The murder was carried out by agents who worked for the crown prince, and it took place inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Additionally, dozens of activists, writers, moderate clerics and economists remain imprisoned for their criticism of Mohammed bin Salman. The few who’ve been released, such as blogger Raif Badawi and women’s rights advocate Loujain al-Hathloul, face yearslong travel bans and cannot speak freely.

Oil production

While Biden attempts to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for their human rights record, he will also tasked with persuading the kingdom and its neighbors to pump more oil and alleviate months of sky-high prices at the gas pump.

The Saudis, among the biggest energy producers in the world, are already producing near their full capacity of 11 million barrels of oil per day. And members of OPEC+ nations, including the Saudis, are likely to be cautious when it comes to demands from the U.S.

Energy analysts say drivers shouldn’t get their hopes up.

“If the public is looking for lower gasoline prices after this trip, I think they’re bound to be disappointed,” said Samantha Gross, director of the energy security and climate initiative at the Brookings Institution.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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