Nothing about President Biden’s visit to the Middle East this week is going to be easy.
The president will first reach Israel, a key US ally in the region. Except that the government of the country is in crisis: its parliament has been dissolved, setting up the fifth national election in three years. He will also visit the Palestinians, who remain relegated to the fringes of US foreign policy.
After two days in Israel, the president will fly to Saudi Arabia to sit next to leaders whom he has been criticized for having a poor human rights record.
It is one of Biden’s most complex and controversial journeys during his presidency. It will also be his first as president in the strategic and volatile region. Why is Biden leaving? What does he hope to achieve?
Here is what you need to know:
Oil will be at the top of the agenda
Biden’s willingness to suspend his condemnation of Saudi leaders and mend ties has been widely seen as a product of his need to confront rising energy prices at home. Those high gas prices: A gallon of gas, on average, costs just under $4.70 a gallon this week — have contributed to record inflation. Concerns about inflation and the economy are on the minds of voters heading into the November midterm elections, which are forecast to be devastating for Democrats.
If Biden can somehow persuade Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, to turn on the taps and add millions of barrels of crude to the market, he could help lower prices globally and provide alternatives to Russian oil for markets like Europe.
“It’s the triumph of pragmatism over principle for the president,” said David Schenker, the top State Department official for the Middle East in the Trump administration. “He’s thinking about getting hit in November with high oil prices, the looming recession. So it’s imperative that he be seen making an effort to bring more supply to market.”
Every administration faces “a tension between balancing our interests and our values,” Schenker, senior fellow now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policyhe said in an interview.
Human rights tension
Biden, US diplomats, lawmakers and human rights advocates have been particularly critical of Saudi Arabia for its role in the 2018 murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the Saudi kingdom, ordered an operation “to capture or kill” Khashoggi.
At a 2019 campaign event, Biden said his administration would indict those responsible for the murder “pay the price and make them, in fact, the outcasts that they are. Until now, Biden has only dealt with the elderly King Salman and only by phone.
Mohammed is also behind some of Saudi Arabia’s most controversial autocratic policies, including prosecution of a brutal war in Yemen that has led to the bombing and starvation of tens of thousands of civilians; alleged kidnapping and torture of the Lebanese prime minister to force him to toe the Saudi line; the imprisonment of thousands of dissidents, including religious minorities and women activists.
Biden’s decision to meet with Mohammed during the Saudi leg of his trip has drawn protests from members of Congress from both political parties, journalists’ associations, human rights advocates and Saudi dissidents. A group of Democratic senators wrote to Biden, warning that Mohammed was “reckless and continuing his ruthless campaign” against dissent.
Many of the critics gathered outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington one day last month and, with the blessing of the District of Columbia government, officially changed the name of the street where the embassy is located to Jamal Khashoggi Way. The new address of the embassy is 601 Jamal Khashoggi Way NW.
Biden’s trip “sends a very bad signal around the world,” said one of the protesters, Omid Memarian, who works with an Arab-focused pro-democracy organization that Khashoggi founded a few months before his death. And when it comes to oil, Memarian said, “the US government is getting a temporary fix and paying for it with its moral high ground.”
The Biden White House and the State Department under Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken insist that human rights are always at the center of US foreign policy and are routinely raised in meetings with other world leaders.
“It’s not the entirety of our foreign policy, it’s a critical element of our foreign policy,” Blinken said in an interview last month. “In the case of Saudi Arabia… we have a multiplicity of interests at stake, we have a multiplicity of values at stake.”
The relationship is being “recalibrated,” he said, to reflect both.
Blinken said the United States sought responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder and other abuses by imposing visa restrictions on dozens of Saudis and enacting a ban, named for the slain journalist, barring foreign nationals who engaged in “extraterritorial counter-dissident activities serious” on behalf of a government from entering the US. Still, neither Mohammed nor any senior Saudi official has been punished or even acknowledged responsibility for the crime.
Senior administration officials have been laying the groundwork for weeks to defend detente with Riyadh. They credit Saudi Arabia with helping broker a ceasefire in Yemen and with significant counterterrorism activities in the region. Mohammed is credited with limited reforms, including allowing women to drive, in what has been one of the world’s most repressive societies.
Other goals at stake
The Biden administration says the proposals to Saudi Arabia go beyond gasoline prices at home.
For one thing, rising Saudi oil production is unlikely to have a major impact on pump prices in the United States.
To raise the additional 2 million barrels per day, as Washington has proposed, Saudi Arabia would have to violate a permanent agreement with other OPEC nations that limits production growth. In addition, Saudi capacity for additional production and processing is limited, said Karen E. Young, founding director of the economics and energy program at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“Will 2 million barrels a day change the price for Americans? No,” she said in an interview. “It would help the market in general but not in the US.”
One potential benefit, from the US perspective, is that lower world market prices would hurt Russia’s revenue from its own oil exports, money used to finance its war in Ukraine.
“Saudi Arabia may be the biggest player in global oil production, but that needs to be put into context,” said Norman Roule, a former top US intelligence official who specializes in the Middle East. “For example, if the kingdom increased production overnight, where would we refine the oil to produce more gasoline?”
The United States has numerous strategic interests to pursue with Saudi Arabia and other governments in the region beyond energy, Roule and other current and former US officials said. These include ensuring the unimpeded flow of trade through the Red Sea and potential checkpoints, such as the Straits of Hormuz and Mandab; cooperate in space exploration and nuclear development; address food insecurity.
Iran will be at the center of the talks
Iran will also be a major agenda item during Biden’s two stopovers.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia, which formally have no diplomatic ties but privately share open animosity toward Iran, oppose US efforts to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal, a landmark 2015 international deal that restricted Tehran’s ability to to produce nuclear energy. Former President Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, prompting Iran to resume significant processing of uranium, the material that could eventually be used to build a nuclear bomb.
Israel and Saudi Arabia will use their meetings with Biden to pressure him into abandoning efforts to revive the deal. A year of talks with Iran, led by other signatories to the deal, including the European Union, China and Russia, have so far come to no conclusion.
In the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah, Biden will also attend a meeting of the so-called GCC-plus-three, an ad hoc coalition of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman) along with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Many, though not all, in the group also have adversarial relations with Iran and want to see it isolated.
“Iran will be very important in this visit,” said Khalid Elgindy, head of the Israeli-Palestinian affairs program at the Middle East Institute. Bolstering a united front against Iran also allows Biden to work toward better integrating Israel into the security architecture of the region, where until recently most countries did not recognize Israel’s existence, he added.
This story originally appeared on Los Angeles Times.