Controversial trip: Biden travels to Saudi Arabia in July

WashingtonA planned visit by US President Joe Biden to Saudi Arabia has sparked criticism and left the White House in need of explanations.

The US government officially announced Biden’s Middle East trip on Tuesday, which has long been speculated about: Biden wants to travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories in mid-July and then visit oil-rich Saudi Arabia. In the face of Biden’s sharp criticism of serious human rights abuses in the kingdom, he and his government are now faced with uncomfortable questions.

Support for a two-state solution

Biden will begin his trip in Israel on July 13, where he will meet with Israeli leaders, a senior White House official said. It is Biden’s first trip to Israel as President. He then wanted to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Biden wanted to reaffirm his support for a two-state solution.

After that, Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia and also meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the government representative said. The Kingdom is also scheduled to attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which will also be attended by representatives from Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.

There had always been speculation about the trip to Saudi Arabia, also against the background of rising energy prices, which put Biden under heavy pressure domestically. However, Biden and the White House had repeatedly refused to confirm the trip.

Traditionally a close US ally, Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s top oil exporters. Biden, however, had sharply criticized human rights abuses in the kingdom in the past. These should also be an issue on Biden’s trip, said the government representative.

However, Biden firmly believes that “at this special moment in the world” it would be wise to visit Saudi Arabia and attend the GCC+3 summit there for a face-to-face exchange.

In November 2019, Biden announced during the presidential election campaign that Riyadh would “pay a price” for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was critical of the government, and become an “outcast”. According to US intelligence services, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – MbS for short – approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. After Biden took office, the US government imposed sanctions on Saudi Arabia in February 2020, but Bin Salman was spared.

Is the economy a priority?

Now Biden and his government administration are confronted with the question – politically recurring for other governments as well – of whether they are putting economic issues ahead of human rights and whether the killing of Khashoggi will have no consequences for Mohammed bin Salman.

Human rights are always an issue at international meetings, said White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre. The government does not hide what happened before Biden took office. But she emphasized: “We don’t want to destroy relationships.” Jean-Pierre also assured that the issue of energy was an important topic during the visit, but by no means the only one. The US government headquarters argues that the President decides on international meetings based on whether it is in the best interests of the American people. And this visit falls into that category.

While the White House said it only expected Mohammed bin Salman to be “involved” in discussions at the visit, the Saudi Embassy in the US announced the Crown Prince would hold “official talks” with Biden on a range of issues to lead.

According to Saudi Arabia, both countries want to strengthen their “excellent strategic partnership” during the visit on July 15 and 16 – and define the “next chapters” of their partnership.

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