WASHINGTON (AP/Middle East Eye) – President Joe Biden confirmed on Tuesday that he will visit Saudi Arabia next month for talks with leaders of the kingdom, a dramatic reordering of his stance on the kingdom that he pledged to make a “pariah” as a Democratic candidate for the White House.
With the visit at the tail end of a July 13-16 Middle East trip that includes stops in the Israeli-occupied territories, Biden is edging off his adversarial stance against on the Saudis’ human rights record. He’s looking to reset the relationship at a time when the U.S. could use help from the oil-rich kingdom to alleviate soaring prices at the pump for motorists at home and around the globe.
The stop in Saudi Arabia will include talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defacto leader of the kingdom. U.S. intelligence officials have determined Prince Mohammed likely ordered the 2018 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In a brief exchange with reporters ahead of departing to Philadelphia on Tuesday for a labor convention, Biden bristled when asked about his upcoming visit to Jeddah and noted that his team had laid out in a statement “everything I’m doing in the Middle East.”
Human rights advocates and some Democratic allies cautioned Biden about visiting the kingdom, saying such a visit without first getting human rights commitments would send a message to Saudi leaders that there are no consequences for egregious rights violations. The Saudis have been accused of using mass arrests, executions and violence to squelch dissent.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told CNN that Biden “has a tough job dealing with gasoline prices and trying to find ways to find new sources and supplies to bring down inflation in the energy sector.”
But Durbin said he had “mixed feelings” about the visit, calling the Saudi’s human rights record “an outrage.”
The Saudi Embassy in Washington said Biden would meet with both King Salman and Prince Mohammed and described the visit as coming at the king’s invitation “to strengthen the historical bilateral relations and the distinguished strategic partnership between” the two countries.
Biden confirmed his trip as a Saudi court has upheld a death sentence against teenager Abdullah al-Huwaiti, who was convicted for crimes allegedly committed when he was a minor.
Saudi Arabia’s Court of Appeal decided on Monday to carry out the death sentence against Huwaiti, who was arrested in 2017 when he was only 14 and given the death penalty at 17 after being convicted of murder and armed robbery.
Reprieve, a UK-based legal NGO, said in a statement that the death sentence against Huwaiti, now 19, “defies United Nations experts’ plea that his death sentence be reversed”.