It's the president’s first trip to the Middle East since taking office, and he’s capping it with a controversial move: a visit to Saudi Arabia.
As a candidate, President Joe Biden called the kingdom a pariah state.
So why the about-face?
"It seems to be driven by a couple of factors," said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. "Oil is obviously one of them, but a bigger one seems to be that right now, Biden is very worried that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, will start orienting themselves more towards China and Russia.”
The war in Ukraine and record prices at the pump are pushing the president to soften his stance on the oil-rich kingdom and its de facto ruler: Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS.
The two leaders are slated to meet on Friday, but it’s unclear if they’ll have a one-on-one chat or even shake hands.
Biden had previously refused to engage with the prince after U.S. Intelligence concluded he orchestrated the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — something the 36-year-old Saudi prince denies.
Prince bin Salman is all but ensured to succeed soon his 86-year-old father, King Salman, who is in poor health. To get there, the prince has been ruthless.
"He consolidated his power a couple of years ago by imprisoning almost all of his cousins and taking power away from them," Parsi said.
Bin Salman is moving to modernize Saudi Arabia by removing the religious police, allowing women to drive and legalizing cinemas and concerts. But experts say he’s doing so as the vindictive tyrant of an increasingly repressive country.
“It is true he allowed women to drive cars, but he also then imprisoned all of the leaders of the women’s movement who had pushed for women to be able to drive cars," said Abdullah Alaoudh, research director for Saudi Arabia at Democracy for the Arab World Now. "He did not want to give them credit.”
U.S.-based political dissident Alaoudh, a friend of the late Khashoggi, knows firsthand how oppressive Saudi Arabia has become.
“I have been surveilled, being threatened, intimidated," Alaoudh said. "My cousin, my uncle, my father have been arrested for years. 19 members of my family are banned from travel and just because they are relatives.”
As president, Donald Trump made his first overseas trip to Saudi Arabia.
Eager to boost U.S. arms sales to the kingdom, Trump overlooked the prince’s human rights record.
But when Biden took office, he promised to change course. He quickly declassified the intelligence report on Khashoggi’s killing and imposed sanctions on the Saudis involved, but not on the prince himself. The White House decided it couldn’t afford a total breakup with such a strategic ally.
“It is an important country because it is the largest oil producer in the world, and we are currently suffering from very high oil prices," Parsi said. "It's an important country because it is a host of some of the holiest places in the religion of Islam, and it's one of the most influential countries in the Muslim world."
Defending his decision to now travel to Saudi Arabia, Biden writes in a Washington Post op-ed that from the start, his aim was “to reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years.”
But ultimately, the question is: Will the meeting be about theatrics only or will it bring actual concessions from either side on oil, security or other issues?
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