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Biden to meet with Saudi crown prince during trip to the kingdom despite human rights concerns

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/14/2022 Maureen Groppe and Rick Rouan, USA TODAY
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President Joe Biden will meet with Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. officials believe ordered the killing of a Washington Post columnist, when he travels to the kingdom next month.

The White House initially said only that Biden would "see" bin Salman during the trip, which will include a stop in Israel. But John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said Tuesday that the administration expects bin Salman to be part of meetings between Biden and Saudi Arabia's leadership.

“There will be lots of bilateral discussions and, yes, that will certainly include (Saudi) King Salman and his team, and we expect the crown prince will be part of those discussions," Kirby said in an appearance on CNN after being pressed on whether Biden would have official talks with bin Salman. "We’re not shying away from that."

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The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia said in an announcement on Biden's visit that bin Salman and the president would have "official talks" on a variety of topics.

The White House's semantic gymnastics over Biden's meeting with bin Salman come after human rights advocates and some members of Congress urged Biden to either cancel the trip or go only under certain conditions. Biden himself said during his presidential campaign that his administration would make the kingdom a "pariah" state because of its human rights abuses.

In office, Biden has taken a more measured approach to the Persian Gulf ally and world's largest exporter of crude oil.

And even though Kirby said the White House was not "shying away" from the direct engagement between Biden and bin Salman, he and other White House officials seemed to do just that – emphasizing that Biden would meet with several heads of state on the trip to discuss issues of regional and international importance.

“The president is going to see over a dozen leaders on this trip. … Yes, we can expect the president to see the crown prince as well," White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday.

Asked whether Biden would discuss the murder in October 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist whom U.S. officials believe bin Salman had ordered killed, Jean-Pierre said the president brings up human rights “with many leaders and plans to do so.” 

The crown prince has denied any involvement in Khashoggi's killing.

Biden is set to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia July 13-16.

The announcement of Biden's trip comes as the White House faces intense domestic pressure to address record-high gas prices, a huge liability for Democrats heading into the midterm elections.

In response to criticism of the apparent pivot from pariah to ally, administration officials have called Saudi Arabia an “important partner” that the United States must engage with to advance its interests, including trying to bring stability and peace to the Middle East.

“I'm not going to change my view on human rights,” Biden told reporters this month when asked about a possible visit to Saudi Arabia. “But as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can. ... And that's what I'm going to try to do.”

Biden will be meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with the heads of state of nine countries in the region. The White House said the agenda would include infrastructure and climate initiatives, deterring threats from Iran, advancing human rights and ensuring global energy and food security.

The White House has insisted that any high-level engagement with Saudi officials is not about persuading the Saudis to increase oil production, which would help bring down gas prices. 

"Of course they will discuss energy with the Saudi government," Jean-Pierre said Monday. But to view the trip as being "only about oil" is "simply wrong," she said.

The only other nation – besides the United States – that produces more oil than Russia is Saudi Arabia. As the U.S. and its allies tries to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, they’re looking for other sources of oil.

The Saudi-led OPEC oil cartel and allied oil-producing countries agreed this month to increase production.

When Biden was competing for his party’s presidential nomination, he was asked during a 2019 debate if he would punish Saudi leaders for human rights abuses, including accusations of directing the murder of Khashoggi

“We’re going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” Biden said. “There’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who had been critical of the Saudi government, was killed inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. Khashoggi had gone to the consulate to get documents he needed for his upcoming wedding.

Jamal Khashoggi, Jamal Khashoggi, Jamal Khashoggi are posing for a picture: Vigil for Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 25, 2018, in Istanbul. © Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Vigil for Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 25, 2018, in Istanbul.

Shortly after taking office, Biden authorized the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to release its findings on the role bin Salman may have played in Khashoggi's murder. The DNI concluded that bin Salman approved the operation "to capture or kill" Khashoggi.

But the White House declined to impose penalties directly on the crown prince.

The administration did announce a new policy, called the “Khashoggi Ban,” to prevent Saudis and others who threaten journalists on behalf of a foreign government from entering the United States.

“And we’ve used it multiple times since,” Jean-Pierre recently told reporters. “At the same time, we thought it was very important to engage Saudi Arabia.”

She pointed to the role the kingdom played recently in extending a truce in the civil war in Yemen, a conflict that has become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Still, more than a dozen human rights groups wrote to Biden this month warning that a visit to Saudi Arabia would “embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law” and “should not come without tangible progress to alleviate some of the most egregious rights violations.”

"Biden's campaign pledge to treat Saudi Arabia as a `pariah' was always hard to believe, but the president's complete retreat from that commitment has demonstrated just how hollow his administration's human rights rhetoric is," Daniel Larison, a contributing editor at Antiwar.com, recently wrote in piece published by Democracy for the Arab World Now.

In Israel, Biden will also have difficult issues to navigate. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes Biden’s efforts to revive a 2015 international deal meant to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The Trump administration shared Israel’s complaint that the deal wasn’t tough enough on Iran and withdrew from it.

The Biden administration has also promised to reopen a consulate to serve Palestinians in Jerusalem, which would reverse another decision by the Trump administration when it moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

As part of Biden's effort to restore ties with Palestinian leaders nearly severed by the Trump administration, he will visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, where the administration has opposed Israel's expansion of settlements.

And to demonstrate the administration's "ironclad commitment" to Israel's security, Biden is expected to visit an area in Israel where missile defense systems supported by the U.S. are deployed.

More:

'It's time we expose the truth': 9/11 families see a turning point in fight to reveal alleged Saudi role

Biden advisers meeting with Saudi official months after U.S. report on Khashoggi murder

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden to meet with Saudi crown prince during trip to the kingdom despite human rights concerns

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