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Biden gambles there's more to gain by courting Saudis

Joe Biden, then US vice president, is welcomed by Saudi Arabia's then foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on arrival in Riyadh in October 2011
— Washington (AFP)

Making an about-face by visiting Saudi Arabia, US President Joe Biden is betting he has more to gain than lose even as rights activists accuse him of selling his soul to oil.

Biden joins eight decades of US presidents who have all in due time courted the oil-rich kingdom, which has assiduously cultivated ties in Washington despite repeated crises including the September 11 attacks, carried out mostly by Saudis.

The White House announced Tuesday that Biden would travel next month for a regional summit in Jeddah and meet Saudi leaders -- whom as a candidate he promised to treat as "the pariah that they are" -- including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

According to US intelligence, "MBS" ordered the 2018 murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Biden on taking office declassified the Khashoggi findings and promised to "recalibrate" the relationship, including by scaling back support for the Saudis' devastating air campaign in Yemen.

Administration officials say they have recently seen the Saudis responding to US concerns including backing a fragile truce in Yemen, where the Riyadh-backed government is battling Iranian-linked Huthi rebels, and making tentative steps to improve relations with US ally Israel.

In a surprise, the Saudis earlier this month led an agreement by oil producers to boost output, a relief to Biden whose poll numbers have been battered by soaring gas prices -- which, however, have kept rising.

Dan Shapiro, who served as ambassador to Israel when Biden was vice president, noted that the 36-year-old crown prince is likely to be the key Saudi leader for years to come.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Osaka in 2019

The visit comes as China increasingly looks to Gulf Arab nations, which have mostly rebuffed US efforts to isolate Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

"President Biden has concluded correctly that the United States has more strategic interests that would be served by stabilizing the US-Saudi relationship," said Shapiro, now at the Atlantic Council.

"It's critical that, as we deal with challenges like Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and China's increasingly assertive stance globally, partners -- particularly in the Middle East, particularly energy-producing nations -- will align themselves with US interests."

- 'Gotten away with murder' -

The trip marks a White House calculation that it is worth weathering the criticism from lawmakers, mostly in his Democratic Party, and activists who say he is jeopardizing his own claims to put human rights at the heart of his foreign policy.

Biden just last week saw his Summit of the Americas summit in Los Angeles marred by a boycott by Mexico's leader over the president's refusal to invite autocratic leaders.

The assassination sparked international outrage that continues to reverberate

Andrea Prasow, executive director of The Freedom Initiative which supports political prisoners in the Arab world, said detainees' families feel Biden "has completely abandoned them in favor of lower oil prices."

She said Biden should have sought commitments from MBS, such as freeing prisoners, in exchange for visiting him.

The message "is pretty clear -- MBS can and has literally gotten away with murder," she said.

Even if Biden privately speaks on human rights, the "public messaging to MBS himself, to everyone in Saudi Arabia and everyone in the US and the world, is that this type of egregious human rights conduct has zero consequence."

- An apology of sorts? -

MBS had a far chummier relationship with former president Donald Trump, whose son-in-law Jared Kushner was said to chat with the prince over WhatsApp.

US President Joe Biden speaks at an AFL-CIO convention in Philadelphia

The former president defended his light response to Khashoggi's killing by saying Saudi Arabia boosted the US economy through weapons purchases.

Trump's secretary of state Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter that MBS "is working to build peace and prosperity for his country" and criticized Biden for sidelining him.

Experts said the crown prince was looking for the relationship to be back to business as usual.

Yasmine Farouk of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that MBS had been personally offended by Biden, a critic of Saudi Arabia even before Khashoggi's murder.

"The main thing MBS is looking for from a visit by Biden isn't necessarily a breakthrough in military or defense cooperation, but political recognition and a kind of apology for ignoring him," she said.