President Joe Biden is eyeing an opportunity to revive a flailing Middle East policy — one that may disappoint some of his congressional allies along the way.
Just a year after concluding that Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader ordered the brutal murder of an American resident and journalist, and after winning the White House with a vow to make Riyadh a “pariah,” Biden is weighing travel to the kingdom next month as well as a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It’s a stunning reversal in the president’s treatment of a bilateral relationship that U.S. leaders have long struggled to use to their advantage at home.
Should Biden follow through with the high-level engagement, he can use the visit to address high gas prices and inflation at home by pushing the Saudis to help stabilize oil markets in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But as much as the White House might crave a turnaround in the Middle East after the disastrous exit from Afghanistan and stalled negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, meeting the crown prince would drive a wedge between Biden and Democratic lawmakers — and many see it as a betrayal by an administration that vowed to keep human rights at the center of its foreign policy.
“I just don’t see any evidence that Saudi Arabia is really stepping up or has stepped up in a situation like this to get relief to people who are just getting clobbered by the cost of gas,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has argued that Biden should have punished the crown prince more directly after declaring that he ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “And I see the human rights violations so clear and profound in terms of what they represent for our values.”
When former President Donald Trump chose Saudi Arabia for his first foreign trip as president and forged a closer relationship with the crown prince, that often meant shelving concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record — a posture that drew relentless condemnation from Biden as he campaigned against Trump in 2020. What’s not yet clear is how much of a price Biden would pay within his own party for reengaging Saudi Arabia as a strategic ally of the U.S., both in boosting global oil production and in pushing back on Iran’s aggression while a diplomatic accord on its nuclear program remains elusive.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he is “deeply against” any meeting with the crown prince, whom U.S. intelligence agencies implicated in Khashoggi’s murder. “I think it’s atrocious. I’d meet with other Saudi officials, but not that murderer.” (Khashoggi was a Virginia resident.)
Three-and-a-half years ago, U.S. lawmakers were aghast after Khashoggi, a longtime critic of the Saudi regime, was killed and dismembered while seeking marriage papers inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Some called for sanctions and effectively severing ties with the kingdom, while then-Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) declared that “they’ve lost Congress for probably multiple years.” And Trump’s coziness with Saudi Arabia spurred bipartisan pushback.
But there are signs of a detente on Capitol Hill, with some lawmakers arguing that isolating Saudi Arabia at a time when the kingdom could serve U.S. and global interests is a mistake.
“Nobody approves or condones what happened [to Khashoggi],” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). “On the other hand, foreign policy is driven by national interests. Human rights is clearly part of the national interest, but there are other aspects, and I think a presidential visit is rarely a bad thing.”
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who famously raged after a classified briefing about a “smoking saw” connecting the crown prince to Khashoggi’s murder, said he was willing to give Biden “the space he needs,” adding: “You’ve got to bring up the human rights abuses … but Saudi Arabia’s still an ally. So I’m not going to beat on him for going.”
Biden’s travel to the region hasn’t been formally announced yet. But a senator familiar with the White House’s thinking on the matter said administration officials believe a presidential visit can be used as a valuable tool to further isolate Russia. And it could serve to hold together the Western alliance by tapping new energy sources for European partners that have chosen to cut off Russian energy imports in protest of its war in Ukraine.
Even as Democrats like Wyden, the Finance Committee chair, aren’t convinced that Saudi Arabia can meaningfully address the global supply chain crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, others are more willing to give Biden leeway.
“If presidents can meet with Kim Jong Un, I can respect why President Biden, in this moment, given the urgency and the scope of the human rights violations being committed in Ukraine, chooses to make outreach to [the crown prince],” Coons said in a brief interview. “The president has a strong record on human rights across decades of service, and I expect him to continue leading on that front.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who met with administration officials on Monday, said he was “willing to be persuaded that there’s a benefit to this trip,” including shoring up the president’s Middle East policy — an area in which he has acted as a defender to a beleaguered White House.
“Would I be tougher on the Saudis and the Emiratis and the Egyptians? Absolutely. I think we need to do a better job of walking the walk on human rights rather than talking the talk,” Murphy said. “But when it comes to two of the biggest and most important portfolios in the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan, I think the administration has gotten it pretty right.”
Still, the White House’s posture on the issue marks a significant departure from Biden’s campaign-trail rhetoric. The then-candidate argued that Trump was too cozy with authoritarians like the crown prince, promising that he would take a different approach by treating Saudi Arabia as a “pariah.”
When asked on Tuesday whether that remains the president's goal, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre referenced past U.S.-Saudi cooperation on fighting the Islamic State and said the kingdom is an “important partner” in countering Iran.
“The president will meet with any leader if it serves the interest of the American people. That’s what he puts first,” Jean-Pierre said. “He believes engagement with Saudi leaders clearly meets that test, as has every president before him.”
Regardless of whether a Saudi trip causes lasting problems with Biden among fellow Democrats, it's clear that lawmakers in his party want more information about the commitments he'd be seeking from the Saudis. On Tuesday, a group of House Democrats led by Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote to Biden urging him to prioritize human rights issues while also pushing the Saudis to help stabilize global oil markets.
On CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Schiff said Biden shouldn’t even go.
“This is someone who butchered an American resident, cut him up into pieces in the most terrible and premeditated way,” Schiff said. “And until Saudi Arabia makes a radical change in terms of its human rights, I wouldn’t want anything to do with him.”
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