(CNSNews.com) – President Biden said on Sunday that he has “not yet” decided if he will visit Saudi Arabia when he’s in the region next month – but then moments later said that he was going, tying the visit to security, including that of Israel, rather than to energy issues.
Biden was speaking to reporters before boarding Air Force One, and he may have misheard the initial question over the engine noise.
Whatever the case, he disclosed that he was going to Saudi Arabia for “a larger meeting taking place” in the kingdom, which he said “has to do with national security for them – for Israelis.”
“Have you decided, sir, whether to go to Saudi Arabia?” a reporter asked.
“No, not yet,” Biden replied.
Asked if he was waiting for commitments from the Saudis, he said, “No, no, the commitments from the Saudis don’t relate to anything having to do with energy. It happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia. That’s the reason I’m going.”
“And it has to do with national security for them – for Israelis,” Biden continued.
“I have a program –” he said, then stopped. “Anyway, it has to do with much larger issues than having to do with the energy piece.”
A National Security Council spokesperson told media outlets that Biden’s planned trip to the region “comes in the context of a significant agenda with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the other countries of the Middle East.”
“That agenda is focused on delivering results for the American people as well as ending wars and leading through diplomacy to bring stability to the Middle East region,” the spokesperson said.
Israeli officials have spoken about Biden visiting Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas around July 14-15, and it’s assumed the trip to Saudi Arabia would take place on either side of that.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s second largest oil producer, and preparations for the visit come amid record-high gas prices. Biden’s comments on Sunday seemed to downplay the expectation that he would use a visit to press Riyadh to increase oil production.
As Biden flew to Los Angeles last week for the Summit of the Americas, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said he had no news to report on a possible visit to Saudi Arabia.
“I’ll only say the president is going to travel to places and meet with people with whom he wants to work to help solve problems for the American people,” he said then.
Under the Trump’s administration’s historic “Abraham Accords,” Israel normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco over the course of four months.
When the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel signed the accords at the White House in September 2020, President Trump held out the possibility that Saudi Arabia would join, “at the right time.”
Any initiative that expanded the circle of regional normalization to incorporate the kingdom would be a momentous shift, given its status as “custodian of the two holy mosques” in Mecca and Medina, the most revered sites in Islam.
At the same time, however, controversy persists over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s suspected role in the killing of the self-exiled Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government and royal family, was slain and dismembered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The U.S. Senate in a bipartisan resolution two months later declared that the heir to the Saudi throne was “responsible for the murder.”
While campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden pledged to shun Saudi Arabia, saying during a 2019 debate that as president he would “make them pay the price [for the Khashoggi murder] and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
In February last year, the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified version of an intelligence report that concluded that Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation that resulted in Khashoggi’s murder.
The administration then announced the “Khashoggi ban,” a policy of restricting visas for “individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.”
Fielding questions last week on a possible Biden visit to Saudi Arabia, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre referred both to the administration’s response to the killing – the report’s release and “Khashoggi ban” – and to its view of the importance of engaging the kingdom on other issues, such as the need to resolve the drawn-out conflict in Yemen.
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