Saudis: Hey, guess who's meeting with MBS next month?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

And guess who didn’t have the guts to announce it himself? Joe Biden and the White House have danced around his upcoming Middle East trip and the engagement with Saudi leadership, whom Biden at one time promised to turn into a “pariah state.” Instead, Biden now will meet with the man that the US believes ordered the murder of dissenter and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi:

President Joe Biden entered the White House vowing to recalibrate US relations with Saudi Arabia after years of President Donald Trump shielding Riyadh and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from punishment over the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden said Saudi Arabia would be made a “pariah” on the global stage and pledged to pursue a foreign policy centered on human rights — including by ending US support for the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen conflict.

But with gas prices rising amid the war in Ukraine and midterms on the horizon, Biden is set to visit Saudi Arabia in mid-July to discuss the escalating oil crisis, among other issues. Following reports on the visit, the White House on Tuesday officially confirmed the trip was happening and said that Biden was expected to “see the crown prince” while in Saudi Arabia. With the US and its European allies embargoing Russian oil over the war, the Biden administration is looking to Saudi Arabia to help blunt the impact of the sanctions on global markets.

The visit is a sign that Biden has been forced into a corner and feels he has to prioritize business over ethics, foreign policy experts told Insider. By visiting the oil-rich country, the experts said Biden is effectively declaring that maintaining friendly relations with Prince Mohammed — the de facto ruler of the kingdom who is often referred to as MBS — is more important than punishing him for Khashoggi’s murder and other human rights abuses.

Business Insider oddly uses passive voice to note how this planed Biden-bin Salman tete a tete was made known. The White House didn’t offer it in their statement. Instead, the Saudis emphasized it in their official statement about Biden’s upcoming visit. US News and World Report noted the sequence:

The White House announcement of the trip was light on specifics and focused instead on how the president will follow through on core elements of his foreign policy agenda – notably energy concerns along with reaffirming U.S. support for its most consequential international allies.

The Saudi government, however, highlighted the president’s plans to meet with the Saudi king as well as the controversial crown prince in confirming the schedule for Biden’s visit moments after the White House announcement, all with an eye on how the leaders can “deepen and strengthen the existing areas of cooperation, and lay the foundations for the future of this strategic partnership,” according to a statement from its embassy. …

Despite the persistent rumors, confirmation that Biden would visit Saudi Arabia remained a question until as recently as Monday. Speaking shortly before boarding Air Force One, Biden told reporters that, “No,” he had “not yet” decided to travel to the Gulf nation before stating that that broader regional policy “is the reason I’m going.”

National Review’s Jimmy Quinn calls out the White House for its pusillanimous approach to Biden’s outreach:

More than two years removed from his campaign-trail pledge to make Riyadh a “pariah” over the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which U.S. intelligence believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved, Biden will meet the de facto Saudi leader during his travels in mid July.

But you wouldn’t know that from the White House statement announcing the trip. The statement only mentions that the Saudi king invited the president, and that Biden “appreciated King Salman’s leadership and his invitation.” There’s no mention of the plans for a meeting with the crown prince.

Those plans only came to light because the Saudi Embassy in Washington issued its own statement today[.]

Why the reluctance? Biden’s getting blasted by his own party today for meeting with bin Salman, especially since it looks highly unlikely that he’ll get much out of it — on energy policy, anyway.

It’s the right call, both on energy cooperation and on regional security. Biden’s earlier pledge to make the Saudis a “pariah state” were stupid, especially while Biden simultaneously pledged to normalize relations between the US and Iran, which sponsors all sorts of terrorism throughout the region. The Saudis have cooperated with US security efforts for decades, and still want to cooperate with the US on those issues now. Choosing Iran over Saudi Arabia, which is precisely what both Biden and Barack Obama have done, is not just hypocritical but completely counterproductive to our arrangements with Sunni states in the Middle East.

So out of necessity, Biden has finally landed on the right policy. Too bad he can’t recognize it as such enough to make the correct argument on engagement, and that reluctance should make us very skeptical that Biden will stay on the correct strategic path.