JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Joe Biden’s effort to bend — not break — the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia formally ends Friday when Air Force One touches down in this coastal city, but it took 18 months of tense behind-the scenes negotiations to get him here, according to nine current and former U.S. officials.
Pulling off the visit was a “herculean effort,” as an official described it, after the Saudis demanded nothing short of personal presidential attention to make amends for Biden having maligned the deeply conservative kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“It took several months before the president was totally on board,” said a senior administration official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
“Even once the president realized the strategic importance of going to meet with the Saudis, he was still hesitant,” the official said. “Ultimately, he realized it was unavoidable.”
The internal hand-wringing over the president’s stop in Saudi Arabia, after visiting Israel, continued into this week, officials said.
There were deliberations about what images of Biden the meetings might produce, they said. Officials went back and forth about whether Biden should smile in photographs with the crown prince or shake his hand — even debating whether Biden should grab his arm while doing so. Officials said they also discussed whether Biden should offer “warm words” about the relationship with Saudi Arabia while standing with the crown prince in front of cameras.
Eventually, officials decided to advise Biden not to smile with the crown prince, they said, while conceding that he would probably wind up doing whatever he wanted to do despite a recommendation.
Biden, who is scheduled to meet with the crown prince and King Salman in Jeddah, has already shown a willingness to flout new protocols in his first Middle East trip as president.
Moments before Biden arrived in Israel, White House officials told reporters he would limit physical contact with those he encounters on this trip, pointing to Covid as the reason. The president exchanged a few fist-bump greetings with Israeli leaders after he stepped off the plane, but within minutes he was emphatically shaking people’s hands and talking within inches of their faces.
Administration officials said the Israel part of Biden’s trip was solidified before he agreed to visit Saudi Arabia.
How Biden came to approve a stop he knew would draw criticism from members of his own Democratic Party — and potentially damage his political brand by reneging on his campaign pledge to make Saudi Arabia an international “pariah” — involved months of internal debate and efforts to get the Saudis to take goodwill steps toward his foreign policy priorities.
The president himself initially was the biggest hurdle, officials said.
Biden still wasn’t sold on the idea in February, when he asked top aides who supported the idea to look into what a visit to Saudi Arabia might look like, officials said. A month later, he was still resisting the trip, they said. Members of his national security team worked for weeks to convince him that it was a good idea, officials said.
Among the arguments that made inroads was that a visit would be about broader stability in the Middle East — a vital U.S. national security interest — that involves further integrating Israel into the region by moving toward normalizing relations with its Arab neighbors. That kind of stability, they argued, can’t happen without Saudi Arabia, the largest of the Persian Gulf states.
“As goes Saudi, so goes the region,” a defense official said. “They are the leader in the region.”
The National Security Council declined to comment on this story.
It helped sway Biden that Israel was on board. Indeed, acting Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, at a meeting Thursday with Biden, said the president’s visit to Saudi Arabia was “extremely important to Israel.”
U.S. officials said Biden warmed to a trip that would include a visit to Saudi Arabia while the country hosted Arab leaders from countries that are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman are members of the council. The leaders of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan are also scheduled to attend the summit in Jeddah on Saturday.
Record gas prices in the U.S. also gave a visit to Saudi Arabia more momentum, officials said. In advance of the trip, Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Amos Hochstein, the State Department’s special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs, visited Saudi Arabia for discussions about the kingdom boosting oil production.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, meanwhile, met with Biden about the trip at least once a week for months to walk him through the strategy.
Yet, even after the White House formally announced Biden’s visit and the meeting with the crown prince became public, Biden seemed ambivalent.
“I’m not going to meet with MBS,” he told reporters. “I’m going to an international meeting, and he’s going to be a part of it.” The crown prince is widely referred to as MBS.
Embracing Saudi Arabia, particularly after U.S. intelligence officials concluded that the crown prince approved the murder of Khashoggi, could seem at odds with Biden’s repeated insistence that the future of the world hinges on whether democracies prevail over autocracies.
Two administration officials said Biden is expected to specifically raise Khashoggi’s murder with Saudi leaders in private. Asked Thursday whether he planned to do so, Biden declined to say. He said that his views on Khashoggi’s murder are clear and that he always brings up human rights on the world stage.
Under criticism of his trip from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, human rights activists and the families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Biden has tried to make the case that the Saudi trip isn’t just about Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers of the 2001 attacks were from Saudi Arabia — as was Osama bin Laden, the mastermind.
“The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia,” Biden said Thursday, “is much broader.”
“It’s to promote U.S. interests,” he said. “I'm going to be meeting with nine other heads of state. It's not just — it happens to be in Saudi Arabia.”
Administration officials also argue that alienating Saudi Arabia would leave an opening for Russia and China in the region, outlining how they believe the upsides of presidential engagement outweigh the upsides of isolating a longtime U.S. ally with a checkered human rights record.
“He knew he would get criticism from the Hill and others, but he was willing to take it because the relationship is important,” a second administration official said.
A third administration official said the National Security Council provided Biden with a report after his first two months in office outlining how the U.S.-Saudi relationship shouldn’t be ruptured. In the following months, Saudi Arabia took steps the administration wanted, such as agreeing to a truce in Yemen.
Biden has conducted extensive personal diplomacy in Europe, largely around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a trip to Japan and South Korea highlighted his administration’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region. Now, administration officials said, he’s solidifying his approach to the Middle East.
“The goal by the end of the summer is to be able to say the U.S. has a strategic position in the most relevant parts of the world that is strong, sustainable, and we’ll build out from there,” the third official said.