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Thursday September 29th, 2022 6:42AM

Pledge of more oil heightens odds of Saudi trip for Biden

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration praised Saudi Arabia Thursday for its roles securing an OPEC+ pledge to pump more oil and a cease-fire extension in Yemen — warm words that appeared to boost the prospect of President Joe Biden traveling to Saudi Arabia and meeting with the kingdom's once-shunned crown prince.

Biden intends to make his first trip as president to the Saudi kingdom later this month, though details have not been finalized, a person familiar with the planning told The Associated Press.

Such a visit would be politically fraught because it would likely bring the U.S. leader together with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Biden as a presidential candidate in 2019 pledged to make the crown prince "pay the price” for the killing of a U.S.-based journalist.

In a statement Thursday, Biden took a far different tone toward Saudi leaders, praising the kingdom's “courageous leadership” for its role in extending a United Nations cease-fire in a Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Biden administration officials have been working behind the scenes to repair relations, discussing shared strategic interests in security and oil with their Saudi counterparts. The effort has played out as the fallout of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the world's No. 2 crude exporter after Saudi Arabia, and a Saudi-Russian brokered cap on oil production have raised crude prices, and sent prices Americans pay at the pumps to record highs.

Biden and Democrats face rising voter anger over the high prices, making the tight oil supply a top political liability.

Appeals from the U.S. and its allies for the OPEC+ group — OPEC nations plus Russia — to boost production more appeared to bear results Thursday. OPEC nations announced they would raise production by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August, offering modest relief for a struggling global economy.

The increase did not appear to ease concerns about tight supply and oil prices actually rose after OPEC+ announced the increase.

In a statement, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre acknowledged what she said was Saudi Arabia's role “in achieving consensus" among the oil producers' bloc. She thanked the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq as well.

“The United States will continue to use all tools at our disposal to address energy price pressures,” Jean-Pierre added.

Jean-Pierre also directly cited “the leadership of King Salman and the Crown Prince” in Thursday's announcement of an extended U.N. cease-fire in Yemen, where Saudi-led forces have led an unsuccessful war to rout that country's Houthi rebels.

The White House is weighing a Biden visit that would also include a meeting of the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates — as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, according to a person familiar with White House planning, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the yet-to-be finalized plans.

Biden would be expected to meet with Prince Mohammed if the Saudi visit happens, according to the person.

Such a meeting could ease a tense and uncertain period in the partnership between Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and the United States, the world’s top economic and military power, that has stood for more than three-quarters of a century.

But it also risks a public humbling for the U.S. leader, who in 2019 pledged to make a “pariah” of the Saudi royal family over the 2018 killing and dismemberment of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Prince Mohammed's brutal ways.

Jean-Pierre has declined to comment on whether Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia. He is expected to travel to Europe at the end of June and could tack on a stop in Saudi Arabia to meet with Prince Mohammed, Saudi King Salman and other leaders. If he does, Biden would also likely visit Israel.

Israeli officials in their engagement with the Biden administration have pressed their point of view that U.S. relations with Arab capitals, including Riyadh, are critical to Israel’s security and overall stability in the region. The visit could also provide an opportunity to kick off talks for what the administration sees as a longer-term project of normalizing Israel-Saudi relations.

And while the Biden administration continues to be concerned about Saudi Arabia's human rights record, the president's advisers credit Saudis for showing greater restraint in its conflict with Yemen since Biden took office.

White House officials expect criticism from Democratic allies and human rights advocates charging Biden is backtracking on human rights, but suggest that in the long term a credible Middle East strategy without key leaders in the kingdom is not tenable.

Biden, through the early going of his presidency, has repeatedly said the world is at a key moment in history where democracies must demonstrate they can out-deliver autocracies. The administration doesn't want to see countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia with troubling human rights records fall into the camp of Moscow and Beijing.

Any Biden climbdown from his passionate human-rights pledge during his campaign — that Saudi rulers would “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s killing — risks more disillusionment for Democratic voters. They have watched Biden struggle to accomplish his domestic agenda in the face of a strong GOP minority in the Senate.

U.S. officials were recently in the region for talks with Saudi officials about energy supplies, Biden administration efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, and the war in Yemen.

Frequent, warm visits among Saudi, Russian and Chinese officials during the freeze between Biden and the Saudi crown prince have heightened Western concern that Saudi Arabia is breaking from Western strategic interests.

Besides helping to keep gas prices high for consumers globally, the tight oil supply helps Russia fund its invasion of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the Saudi kingdom Tuesday.

Officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for their part, see Biden as the latest of several U.S. presidents to neglect the U.S. military’s longstanding protector role in the Gulf, as the United States tries to focus on China.

Those Gulf security worries may be eased by the U.S. move last year bringing control of its forces in Israel under U.S. Central Command. That effectively increases interaction between Israel’s U.S.-equipped military and Arab forces under the U.S. military umbrella, said Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council.

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