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Why is Joe Biden going to Saudi Arabia?

President has multi-issue agenda to discuss with Saudi leaders

John Bowden
Washington DC
Wednesday 13 July 2022 21:46 BST
Joe Biden on way to Middle East on first trip as US president

There will be several issues on the agenda when Joe Biden touches down friday in Jeddah, the centuries-old port city on the coast of Red Sea.

Mr Biden will arrive in Saudi Arabia on Friday, his first visit to an Arab country since taking office, as part of his participation at King Salman’s invitation in a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council: a political, economic and military alliance which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates alongside Saudi Arabia, which is hosting the summit.

He’ll also attend a bilateral meeting with the leaders of Saudi Arabia itself including King Salman and his controversial heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been accused of ordering the murder of a Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

At the top of Mr Biden’s list is reestablishing the US-Saudi relationship, damaged by the murder of Mr Khashoggi and the subsequent US backlash. The president has declared his intent to “reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years” as his government seeks to confront a number of issues throughout the Middle East.

One of those issues, perhaps the biggest, is Iran. With the Biden administration pursuing a clear path aimed at returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement signed under former President Obama and abandoned under the Trump administration, the White House will be leaning on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf powers to fight back against Iran’s influence in the region. Saudi Arabia in particular has great motivation to be a part of that effort given Iranian support for Houthi separatists in Yemen.

Speaking of Yemen, the civil war that has consumed Saudi Arabia’s neighbour is also set to be a top issue discussed by Mr Biden with Saudi leadership later this week. Mr Biden has applauded Saudi Arabia’s decision to “fully suppor[t] the truce in Yemen”, though its blockade of Houthi territory persists, and through his press secretary noted that it has led to the “most peaceful period there since war began seven years ago”.

Israel too will be on the agenda. Eager to build off the rare success of the Trump White House in this area, the Biden administration is working to deepen Israel’s ties with the Arab world.

“I will also be the first president to fly from Israel to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. That travel will also be a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand,” Mr Biden declared in his Washington Post op-ed ahead of his departure.

Lastly, there’s gas prices. This is a touchy subject for Mr Biden, whose aides have loudly insisted there is little a US president can do to wave a magic wand and cause prices to drop. But one thing the US could concievably do is deepen ties with Opec nations including Saudi Arabia and work further to persuade those countries to increase production.

Mr Biden has insisted in the past that he won’t compromise US values for oil. But conversations between the US and the Saudi government on that issue are nonetheless occurring, according to the president.

It’s still unclear if Mr Biden’s visit will have tangible effects on any of these issues. But with the beginnings of peace looking possible in Yemen and US combat operations ending in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president is now taking the time to tout improvements to a region that just a few years ago was consumed by war between a western-backed coalition, the Islamic State, and a myriad of other forces present in the volatile landscape.

“Next week, I will be the first president to visit the Middle East since 9/11 without U.S. troops engaged in a combat mission there,” the president concluded in his op-ed, Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia. “It’s my aim to keep it that way.”

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