Pledge of more oil heightens odds of Saudi trip for Biden

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration praised Saudi Arabia on Thursday for its role in a promised boost in oil production and a cease-fire in Yemen, in warm tones that appeared to further raise prospects for 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 fraught because it would likely bring the U.S. leader together with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Biden as a presidential candidate in 2019 pledged to make the crown prince a “pariah” for his in the killing of a U.S.-based journalist.

In a statement Thursday, Biden took a far different tone, praising the kingdom’s “courageous leadership” for its role in extending a U.N. cease-fire in a Saudi-led war in Yemen.

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

Appeals from the U.S. and its allies for OPEC nations to ease up on production limits in the Russia deal appeared to bear results Thursday. OPEC nations announced they would raise production by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August, offering modest relief for the struggling global economy.

Rising crude prices have pushed gasoline to a record high in the U.S., raising fears that elevated energy prices could slow the global economy as it emerges from the coronavirus pandemic. Biden and Democrats face rising voter anger over the high prices, making the tight oil supply a top 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 producers’ bloc. She thanked the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq as well.

“The United States will continue to use all tools at our disposal to address energy prices 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 United Arab Emirates — as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, according to a person familiar with White House planning, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the yet-to-be finalized plans.

Biden would be expected to meet with Prince Mohammed if the Saudi visit happens, 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 top economic and military power, that has stood for more than three-quarters of a century.

But it also risks a public humbling for the U.S. leader, who in 2019 pledged to make a “pariah” of the Saudi royal family over the 2018 killing and dismemberment of U.S.-based journalist 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 at the end of June and could tack on a stop in Saudi Arabia to meet with Prince Mohammed, Saudi King Salman and other leaders. If he does, Biden would also likely visit Israel.

Israeli officials in their engagement with the Biden administration have pressed their point of view that U.S. 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 kick off talks for what the administration sees as longer term project of normalizing Israel-Saudi relations.

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

White House officials expect criticism from Democratic allies and human rights advocates charging Biden is back tracking on human rights, but suggest that in the long-term a credible long-term Middle East strategy without key leaders in the kingdom is not tenable.

Biden, through the early going of his presidency, has repeatedly said that the world is at a key moment in history where democracies must demonstrate they can out-deliver autocracies. The administration doesn’t want to see countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia with troubling human rights records to fall into the camp of Moscow and Beijing.

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

Moreover, any Biden climbdown from his passionate human-rights pledge during his campaign — that Saudi rulers would “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s killing — risks more disillusionment for Democratic voters. They have watched Biden struggle to accomplish his domestic agenda in the face of a strong GOP minority in the Senate.

U.S. officials were recently in the region for talks with Saudi officials about energy supplies, Biden administration efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and Saudi’s bogged-down war to oust Houthi rebels in Yemen. Fighting there was recently calmed by a cease-fire, which was extended further Thursday.

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

Besides helping to keep gas prices high for consumers globally, the tight oil supply helps Russia get better prices for the oil and gas it is selling to fund its invasion of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the Saudi kingdom Tuesday.

Officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for their part, see Biden as the latest of several U.S. presidents to neglect the U.S. military’s longstanding protector role in the Gulf, as Washington tries to extricate itself from Middle East conflicts to focus on China.

Those Gulf security worries may be eased by the U.S. move last year bringing control of its forces in Israel under U.S. Central Command. That effectively increases interaction between Israel’s U.S.-equipped military and Arab forces under the U.S. military umbrella, said Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council.

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