Sep 22, 2021 - World

Scoop: Jake Sullivan plans to visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE next week

Sullivan. Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

White House National Security adviser Jake Sullivan is planning to travel to the Middle East next week, including a stop in Saudi Arabia. He would be the most senior Biden administration official to visit the kingdom.

Why it matters: Sullivan's first trip to the region since taking office is expected to include stops in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, sources briefed on the plans tell Axios. All three countries are longtime U.S. partners who have faced some early tensions with Biden.

Relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are particularly difficult after Biden vowed on the campaign trail to “make them the pariah that they are."

  • After taking office, Biden published a CIA report which held Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman responsible for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and stopped arms deals with the Saudis over human rights violations in Yemen.
  • More recently, the U.S. pulled a Patriot missile defense system out of Saudi Arabia.
  • Secretary of defense Austin cancelled a recent trip to Saudi Arabia last minute citing “scheduling issues."

U.S. relations with Egypt are also strained, particularly after the State Department froze $130 million of the annual U.S. military aid to Egypt over President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's human rights record.

  • The U.S. did allow $170 million in military aid to go through, though, and has been working with Egypt to prevent another flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
  • The Egyptians are also seeking U.S. support in their dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a project which Egypt views as an existential threat to its water supply.
  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken is also expected to meet his Egyptian counterpart on Thursday in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

The UAE has managed the transition from Donald Trump to Biden without as significant a strain in the relationship.

  • The Biden administration has supported the UAE's engagement with Israel under the Abraham Accords, and allowed a controversial arms deal, signed by the Trump administration in the context of the Israel deal, to go through.
  • Iran will likely be a major focus of Sullivan's visit. The Emiratis want to see the U.S. take a stronger position against Iran's regional activities.

One source said discussions were ongoing to see if the schedule would allow for a stop in Israel as well after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett returns from the UN General Assembly late next week.

The big picture: Biden wants to focus less U.S. attention on the Middle East and more on China, and there have been concerns in all three countries Sullivan will visit about what the withdrawal from Afghanistan means for U.S. engagement in the region.

  • The main U.S. partner in the region during the withdrawal was Qatar, which until 9 months ago was subject to a boycott from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt.
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