President Joe Biden will visit Saudi Arabia next month for bilateral talks and meet with the country's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as part of an itinerary that includes Israel and the West Bank, a senior administration official said.
The trip comes as the president seeks to bring down rising gas prices caused in part by U.S. and European Union sanctions against Russian oil exports over its invasion of Ukraine. Biden has denied that the long-discussed visit to Saudi Arabia would primarily be aimed at getting the Saudis to pump more oil, but other U.S. officials have acknowledged that oil is an important factor.
Biden will address human rights, but the visit is largely aimed at repairing relations after Biden in 2019 referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state for the brutal murder of Saudi-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a regime critic, administration officials have said. When Biden took office he authorized the declassification of a CIA investigation’s conclusion that the crown prince was ultimately responsible for the murder.
Other big issues to be discussed on the trip include the civil war in Yemen, where the Saudis have helped achieve a cease-fire, and shared concerns about Iran’s progress in developing its nuclear program, the senior administration official said.
Critics, including an organization of families of 9/11 victims, oppose Biden going to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have denied that their government had any role in the terror plot, but 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
In Saudi Arabia, Biden will participate in a summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which consists of leaders from Gulf nations, and in bilateral talks, including with the crown prince, the administration official said.
The president plans to meet with bin Salman and other Saudi officials because it's in the interest of the U.S., the official said.
“The president is not going to change his views on human rights, he’s made that clear," the official said. "And he’s also made clear that as president of the United States, it’s his job to bring peace 'if I can' — I think that was his direct quote. And that’s what he’s going to try to do. And he focuses our entire national security team on getting things done for the American people. And if he determines it’s in his interest to engage with any particular leader, and it’s such engagement can deliver results, then he’ll do so."
Biden will stop in Israel first — his first visit to the country as president, the administration official said. The entire trip is scheduled for July 13 to 16. The announcement comes about 10 days after a planned trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia in late June was pushed back, several sources told NBC News at the time.
When Biden was asked last week about a possible trip to Riyadh, he told NBC News that if he went, he would also discuss improving Saudi relations with Israel. However, the Saudis are not yet prepared to recognize Israel as have other Arab countries, according to the three sources with knowledge of the planning.
In Israel, Biden is expected to meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed, the senior administration official said. He may also meet with athletes participating in the Israel's Maccabiah Games, which brings in Jewish athletes from around the world for an Olympics-like competition.
The president will also visit the West Bank and plans to meet with President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders, said the official, adding that the administration hopes it will be part of a "renewed, reinvigorated dialogue" between the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority and between Israel and the Palestinians.