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The White House is considering a presidential visit to Saudi Arabia


The White House is considering a presidential visit to Saudi Arabia this summer. Relations with the Persian Gulf ally cooled over President Biden's criticism of Saudi human rights violations. Now the administration wants to lower gas prices, and Saudi oil could help. NPR's international affairs correspondent, Jackie Northam, reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The friction between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia started even before Biden became president. During his campaign, he called the kingdom a pariah, lashed out at its human rights record and questioned selling weapons to the Gulf nation. As president, Biden allowed the release of an intelligence report laying blame for the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the crown prince and de facto leader of the kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman. Relations between the two men went into a deep freeze, but the war in Ukraine has changed that.

FIRAS MAKSAD: The high prices of oil, largely as a result of a Western ban on Russian energy, has put Saudi Arabia at the center of things.

NORTHAM: That's Firas Maksad with the Middle East Institute in Washington. He says Biden is looking to Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter of crude, to help tame global oil prices and lower the cost of gas at the pump. Maksad says the crown prince, known as MBS, now has a lot of leverage.

MAKSAD: Presidents Biden's bad fortune as a result of oil prices in the U.S. is a win for MBS.

NORTHAM: The Saudis will likely have their own wish list for Biden. Jonathan Wood, a Saudi analyst at Control Risks, a risk consultancy group, says the kingdom will be looking to renew security guarantees. The Saudis have made it clear they've been let down by the U.S. - for curbing support for Saudi-led forces fighting in Yemen and when the Trump administration wouldn't give the kingdom the help it wanted after Iranian missiles hit critical oil facilities in 2019. Wood says the crown prince will want to be reassured the U.S. has its back in the future.

JONATHAN WOOD: I think Saudi Arabia will be looking for reassurance that the U.S. will still be a stable and reliable security partner as it faces threats from Yemen and, of course, in its regional competition with Iran.

NORTHAM: The Saudis will also likely be asking for weapons sales. That won't be easy getting through Congress, which takes a dim, bipartisan view of the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen that's left thousands of civilians dead. And then there's the killing of journalist Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018. It created outrage in the U.S. and around the world. But Ayham Kamel, the head of Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy, says discussing Khashoggi is a nonstarter for the crown prince.

AYHAM KAMEL: It will be in the background. It will certainly shape opinion in the U.S. But Saudi Arabia has made it very clear, we will not have the relationship revolve around the Khashoggi issue and the crisis.

NORTHAM: Firas Maksad says it may be tough for President Biden to sell that to the American public. But there are other considerations for dealing with Saudi Arabia.

MAKSAD: President Biden needs to tell the American people - is that Saudi Arabia continues to be a key player in the global energy markets. So America's got to deal with the world as it is, not which it wishes it to be.

NORTHAM: Human rights advocates say the U.S. needs to keep pressuring Saudi Arabia to improve its record on those issues. The Saudi Embassy gave NPR a statement saying Saudi-U.S. relations are long standing and have withstood the test of time and that issues facing the world today require the two countries to, quote, "work closely together to safeguard our common interests."

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.