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Biden may meet Saudi crown prince as early as June, report says

The White House is working on arranging a meeting during a GCC summit in Riyadh, sources tell CNN
Since coming into office, Biden has said that he would not speak directly with the crown prince and would only engage with his father, King Salman.
US President Joe Biden previously said he wouldn't speak directly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and would only engage with his elderly father, King Salman (AFP/File photo)

US President Joe Biden may meet in person with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as early as next month, according to a report by CNN citing multiple officials.

Biden administration officials are currently in talks with their Saudi counterparts about a potential meeting between the two leaders while Biden is overseas next month, officials told CNN. The meeting would come after months of turbulent relations and multiple attempts at rapprochement by the White House.

"You should count on something like this happening, it just comes down to when, not if," a former US official familiar with the discussions said.

"Because of our multiple shared national security interests, [a meeting] is a good thing," said the former US official familiar with the meeting discussions.

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A National Security Council spokesperson told Middle East Eye: "We have no travel to announce at this time."

A meeting between Biden and bin Salman, also known by his initials MBS, would likely coincide with a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Riyadh, the sources added.

The meeting comes amid a major falling out between the two-decades-long allies, and would also mark a turning point for Biden who, since coming into office, has said that he would not speak directly with the crown prince and would only engage with his father, King Salman.

Biden had also been critical of his predecessor Donald Trump who had enjoyed close ties with autocrats in the Middle East, including the Saudi crown prince, and had bypassed congressional human rights concerns to pass hundreds of billions of dollars worth of arms deals to the kingdom.

Officials said Biden was opposed to engaging with MBS as a matter of principle because of his role in the murder of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Just three months into Biden's presidency, his chief of intelligence released a declassified report stating that MBS was ultimately responsible for the 2018 killing of Khashoggi.

The White House sanctioned members of the hit squad that killed Khashoggi but stopped short of issuing sanctions against MBS himself.

Under Biden, the US also ended support for offensive operations in the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen, and also lifted the foreign terror designation of Yemen's Houthis.

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to MEE's request for comment.

Looking for a reset

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, oil and gas prices have skyrocketed, with the Biden White House attempting to reset ties with Riyadh.

Several officials have visited the country, and Washington has requested that the kingdom boost oil production to help mitigate gas prices domestically.

However, relations had soured over the past few months, with Saudi Arabia rejecting those requests, opting to stay in line with an Opec+ agreement on oil output with Russia.

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Riyadh refrained from joining western countries in imposing sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

MBS also reportedly rejected a phone call from Biden earlier this year, according to the Wall Street Journal, and reportedly shouted at National Security advisor Jake Sullivan when a human rights issue was brought up during a meeting.

CNN reported that the White House National Security Council's Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and the State Department's senior adviser for global energy security Amos Hochstein have been working behind the scenes to repair the relationship between Washington and Riyadh.

However, recent reports by The Intercept and the Wall Street Journal have said that another administration official, Central Intelligence director William Burns, has also played a secretive role in repairing the fractured ties.

Thursday's report also comes as MBS's younger brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is scheduled to visit Washington this week.

Prince Khalid, Saudi Arabia's deputy defence minister, is meeting with US officials and will participate in a meeting of the US-Saudi Arabia strategic joint planning committee this week at the Pentagon. 

He is the highest-level Saudi official to come to the country since Biden released the intelligence memo on Khashoggi's murder.

Human rights

US officials also told CNN that they were watching closely what implications the potential meeting would have in Congress, given calls from lawmakers to hold Saudi Arabia and MBS accountable for a number of human rights abuses including the murder of Khashoggi.

Last month, a number of top congressional leaders sent a letter to the White House criticising the Biden administration's handling of its relationship with Riyadh, saying a recalibration "is long overdue" in order to reflect the US's commitment to "uphold human rights and democratic values in our foreign policy".

A number of top senators from both parties have also previously reached out to Biden to ask him to work to release Sarah and Omar al-Jabri, the children of former senior Saudi counterterrorism official Saad al-Jabri, who have been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.

Both of Jabri's children were arrested in March 2020 and held incommunicado until January 2021, according to the New York-based rights group, Human Rights Watch (HRW). Omar and Sarah were sentenced to nine and six years in prison, respectively, the rights group said.

Jabri, who had deep ties with the CIA and had been a key go-between for western intelligence agencies and the Saudi intelligence apparatus, has filed a lawsuit in Washington accusing MBS of sending a team of assassins to Canada to kill him.

A source familiar with Jabri's situation previously told MEE that he had become a target of MBS due to his loyalty to former Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and his vast knowledge of the kingdom's powerful interior ministry.

According to CNN, Jabri has offered to settle all financial and legal disputes with Saudi Arabia if his children are returned.