Biden to visit Saudi Arabia, a country he vowed to treat as a ‘pariah’

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is expected to visit Saudi Arabia this month as his administration attempts to repair strained relations with a longtime U.S. ally and bring more oil onto the global market, five sources with knowledge of his plans told NBC News.

The president will visit Israel on the same trip, potentially setting him up to fly directly from Saudi Arabia and Israel — a symbolically important move as the Biden administration works to expand on progress made during the Trump administration in nurturing fledgling ties between Israel and Arab Gulf states.

During the late June stop in Saudi Arabia, Biden will likely meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, U.S. officials and others familiar with his travel plans said. Known by his initials MBS, the crown prince is Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and in line to be its next king.

The officials and others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss plans that have not yet been announced. The White House declined to comment Thursday on whether Biden would visit Saudi Arabia.

The Washington Post previously reported Biden’s planned trip to Saudi Arabia.

Granting a presidential visit to Saudi Arabia marks a significant reversal for Biden, who on the campaign trail promised to treat the kingdom as a “pariah” state after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist and MBS critic, at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The CIA later concluded MBS had ordered Khashoggi’s murder. MBS has denied any personal involvement in the killing.

“They have to be held accountable,” Biden said in 2019 during an NBC News-Washington Post candidate debate.

Yet Saudi Arabia’s outsize role in several of the most pressing foreign policy issues facing the Biden administration has made the country and its leadership difficult to avoid. Since taking office, Biden and his administration have worked quietly to smooth over tensions with Riyadh.

“President Biden was determined that we recalibrate the relationship with Saudi Arabia and to make sure that the relationship was serving our own interests as well as our values as we move forward, but also preserving it, because it also helps us accomplish many important things,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at an event this week hosted by Foreign Affairs magazine.

The administration this week praised Riyadh for its role in securing an extension to a truce in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and its allies for years have been fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia is also closely watching whether the U.S. will strike an agreement to return to the nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy.

And on Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre took to Twitter to credit Riyadh for its role in an OPEC agreement to increase oil production this summer, as the Biden administration desperately seeks ways to lower U.S. gas prices ahead of the midterm elections. Saudi Arabia has been resistant to increase oil output despite the global market disruptions caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Biden will also meet in Riyadh with the Gulf Cooperation Council, two diplomats said. A regional bloc that includes other U.S. allies in the Gulf like Qatar and Bahrain, the GCC plays a significant role in U.S. efforts to isolate Iran, and many of its members are among the world’s largest producers of oil and gas.

The stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia are expected to be added to a previously scheduled trip the president is expected to make in late June to Germany and Spain, where Biden will attend a pair of global summits.

Abigail Williams contributed.