President Biden is planning a trip to the Middle East from July 13 to 16 — including a stop in Saudi Arabia, a nation he called a "pariah" when he was running for office, but one that also plays an outsized role in global energy markets as the White House tries to fight inflation driven in large part by higher gas prices.
His visit will take him first to Israel, where he will talk about defense and economic issues, as well as to the West Bank, to meet with Palestinian leaders. Then Biden will fly to Saudi Arabia where he will meet with King Salman and eight other heads of state at a regional summit.
Biden had pledged to change the way the United States deals with Saudi Arabia, promising to stand up for human rights. It was after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — something U.S. intelligence has determined was approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
"I would make it very clear," Biden said during a Democratic debate in November 2019. "We were not going to sell more weapons to them. We were going to make them pay the price, and make them the pariah that they are. There's very little redeeming value in the present government of Saudi Arabia."
Biden was asked about those comments recently. He justified a visit by trying saying it would help work on stability in the region. "I'm not going to change my view on human rights. But as president of the United States my job is to bring peace if I can," he said. "And that's what I'm going to try to do."
The White House wants to 'recalibrate' relations — but not rupture them
The White House says Biden has raised and will continue to raise human rights concerns during private meetings. A senior official told reporters that the administration had issued a public report on Khashoggi's murder and sanctioned Saudi individuals for repressing people outside the kingdom.
"While we recalibrate relations, we're not seeking to rupture relations," the official said, noting there was too much at stake in working with Saudi Arabia on containing Iran, cooperating on counterterrorism, and protecting some 70,000 Americans living and working in the kingdom.
Soaring gasoline prices are a big problem for Biden. Saudis could help
The White House has been reluctant to draw a connection between Biden's desire to bring oil prices down and Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia. Biden himself said on Saturday that a visit would be about more than just oil supplies.
But as energy prices spiked after Russia invaded Ukraine, and western nations curbed imports of Russian oil, the White House has noticeably shifted its stance on the Kingdom.
Inflation has become the top political priority for Biden and Democrats, with average national gas prices hitting $5 per gallon just as the peak summer driving season beings. Biden is under pressure to show he is doing everything he can to try to bring prices down.
Saudi Arabia has the largest spare capacity of any big oil-producing nation — meaning that it can boost its production quickly in a way that many other oil producers cannot.
Administration officials have visited Saudi Arabia to talk about oil production, among other things. On June 2, when OPEC+ said it would increase production, the White House praised the Kingdom for its leadership in reaching the decision.
Human rights groups say they're disappointed
A central tenet of Biden's foreign policy is shoring up democracies in what he sees as a battle with autocracies. It's part of why he has rallied the West to back Ukraine after Russia invaded — and part of why he left Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua off the guest list for the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.
"It's funny, if it weren't so tragic," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now — a non-profit started by Jamal Khashoggi.
"America's relationship with these governments in the Middle East undermines what the Biden administration has said is a national priority, a global priority: to promote democracy," Whitson told NPR in an interview.
Democrats in Congress also have questions — although they, too, want Biden to push for more oil production. A group of House Democratic committee chairs have asked for a briefing before and after the trip.
"The kingdom has long been an important U.S. partner, and we seek to further cooperate with it on regional, counterterrorism, energy, and other priorities. However, since 2015 its leadership has repeatedly acted in ways at odds with U.S. policy and values," the committee chairs said in a letter to Biden.
The war in Yemen is also a big focus for the White House
Biden has praised Saudi Arabia recently for helping to implement a UN truce in Yemen, where war has raged since 2015. Biden had promised to help end the war when he took office.
A senior administration official briefing reporters on the trip said the truce, now in its ninth week, was "a clear example of where our engagement with the Saudis delivered results," specifically praising Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his "critical role" in securing an extension of the truce.
The UN has called Yemen the world's worst humanitarian crisis because of lack of food, medical supplies and basic services. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in air strikes.