President Joe Biden is weighing a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman as soon as next month, according to people familiar with the matter, after avoiding contact with the crown prince over the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The move will mark a significant shift for Biden. Early in his presidency, the White House had said that Biden would deal only with Saudi Arabia’s official head of state, King Salman bin Abdulaziz. An administration official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Biden may visit the Middle East for meetings with the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional political and economic union, and noted that Saudi Arabia currently holds the presidency of the group.
At stake is a decades-old partnership that’s given the U.S. clout in the world’s top energy-exporting region. Spiraling U.S. gasoline prices have raised pressure on Biden to make amends with the prince because he effectively controls the levers of power in the kingdom. King Salman, 86, left hospital earlier this week after treatment and recovery that included a colonoscopy.
The people familiar with the matter asked not to be identified because a meeting in the world’s largest oil exporter remains under discussion. CNN reported earlier that planning was underway for a meeting between Biden and MBS, as the crown prince is also known.
The slaying and dismemberment of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 deeply damaged the kingdom’s relations with the U.S. government. Soon after he took office, Biden’s administration released a declassified report pinning blame for the murder on the crown prince.
The prince has denied any involvement, though he’s said he accepts responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
A spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council said they have no travel to announce at this time. Saudi Arabia’s Center for International Communication, and the Saudi Embassy in Washington, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
International consumers have called on Saudi Arabia and its partners to fill the gap left by a boycott of Russian crude over Moscow’s war on Ukraine and help ease the inflationary pain caused by prices near $110 a barrel. Saudi Arabia is a heavyweight in OPEC+, a powerful alliance between the oil-exporters’ cartel and Russia.
A visit would increase the probability that OPEC+ could pump more oil, Bob McNally, president of Washington-based consultant Rapidan Energy Group, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television.
A gallon of gas currently costs about $4.59 at the pump on average, according to the auto club AAA. In California, the price is over $6 on average. Biden has ordered a record release of oil from U.S. reserves to try to combat gasoline price increases, but the move has had little effect. The average price of gasoline has increased 40 cents in the past month, according to AAA.
Biden has been reluctantly drawn into closer ties with Saudi Arabia’s king-in-waiting, Bloomberg reported in March, forced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to rethink a standoffish approach amid a shifting geopolitical landscape with China an increasingly assertive superpower.
The outreach, which has also coincided with U.S. efforts to heal frictions with Saudi Arabia’s neighbor the United Arab Emirates, follows months of efforts by some senior administration officials to convince a wary president that ignoring the de facto Saudi leader was hampering U.S. foreign policy goals.
Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” during his presidential campaign, a reflection of his revulsion over Khashoggi’s murder and a desire to retreat from his predecessor’s warmer relations.
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Bloomberg’s Anthony Di Paola contributed to this report.
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