DUBAI (Reuters) – President Joe Biden will visit the United State’s most important Arab ally Saudi Arabia on July 15-16 after two years of strained ties over the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.
Here are key issues between the United States and Saudi Arabia that could arise in talks involving Biden and King Salman bin Abdulaziz and the kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also referred to as MbS.
Biden had refused to deal directly with Prince Mohammed following a U.S. intelligence report implicating him in the killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
But Washington’s desire to improve ties to Gulf monarchies has become more urgent following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. The Ukraine war highlighted the relevance of Gulf oil producers as Biden struggles to combat high U.S. gasoline prices and build a united international front to isolate Russia.
The Saudi government denied any involvement by the prince in Khashoggi’s death, saying the murder was a heinous crime by a rogue group.
Biden’s visit to the kingdom, where he is also due to attend a summit of Arab leaders, ends his campaign pledge to make Saudi Arabia a pariah. Biden has called on the kingdom and other Gulf producers to raise oil output to help stabilise prices, which have surged as a result of a strong rebound in consumption from pandemic-induced lows and now sanctions on Russia.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been perceived as the only two countries in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) with spare capacity to boost global deliveries that could reduce prices.
But comments by French President Emmanuel Macron to Biden on the sidelines of the G7 summit caught on camera by Reuters suggested the two Gulf states could barely increase production.
Biden said last month he would not directly press Saudi Arabia to increase oil output on his visit.
Biden is likely to encourage Saudi Arabia to establish ties with Israel, advancing a U.S. push for an Arab-Israel bloc that could tilt the Middle East balance of power away from Iran.
Washington hopes more cooperation would further integrate Israel in the region. It may also preface more normalisation between Israel and other Gulf states.
Riyadh was supportive of Israel’s rapprochement with the UAE and Bahrain in the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords of 2020. But Saudi Arabia stopped short of itself normalising ties to Israel.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest two sites, has conditioned any eventual normalization on the addressing of the Palestinians’ quest for statehood on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
Biden will help Israel strengthen its regional ties and take its U.S. alliance to new heights on his Middle East trip, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said in June.
Biden has promised to put human rights at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.
Biden may reiterate the U.S. call on Saudi leaders to review cases of “prisoners of conscience” and lift travel bans and other restrictions imposed on women’s rights activists previously released from jail. Saudi authorities have detained senior royals, activists, intellectuals and clerics. Saudi officials deny there are any political prisoners in the kingdom.
Biden pledged in his presidential election campaign that he would reassess U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia.
Both sides agreed in April on a U.N. ceasefire proposal that has suspended air, sea and land attacks while allowing imports into Houthi-controlled sea ports and a partial reopening of Sanaa airport. The truce is the first comprehensive agreement in the war, which has killed tens of thousands and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
Biden is likely to ask Riyadh to keep up its support for the truce. In June the White House took the rare step of recognizing the role played by MbS in extending a ceasefire in Yemen
Saudi Arabia has long been wary of efforts to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which gave Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme. Talks on resurrecting the accord have been stalled for months.
MbS is likely to raise his concerns. Riyadh, which has been locked in several proxy wars with Iran in the region including in Yemen, had criticised the 2015 pact as flawed for not addressing Tehran’s missile programme and network of regional allies, a key concern for some Gulf states.
(Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by William Maclean)