Scoop: Biden officials in Saudi Arabia for talks on oil, planned visit
Two of President Biden’s senior advisers are on a secret visit to Saudi Arabia for talks about a possible arrangement between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt, a deal to increase oil production and Washington and Riyadh's bilateral relationship, three current and former U.S. officials told Axios.
Why it matters: President Biden is considering visiting Saudi Arabia as part of his planned trip to the Middle East at the end of June. Getting a package of understandings between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on these issues is crucial for the visit to take place, the sources said.
- Biden once vowed to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" and relations have been strained over a number of issues, including the kingdom's human rights record and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
- U.S. intelligence says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible — an allegation Saudi Arabia denies.
Driving the news: White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and the State Department’s energy envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for meetings with senior Saudi officials, the sources said.
- The White House declined to comment. A State Department spokesman said it has "no official travel to announce at this time."
- The Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
State of play: Axios reported earlier this week that the Biden administration has been quietly mediating among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt on negotiations that, if successful, could be a first step on the road to the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
- It involves finalizing the transfer of two strategic islands — Tiran and Sanafir — in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty with Israeli consent and separate potential modest normalization steps by Saudi Arabia towards Israel.
- If an arrangement is reached, it would be a significant foreign policy achievement for the Biden administration in the Middle East.
What they're saying: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan was asked about the Axios report on Tuesday during a World Economic Forum panel in Davos, Switzerland.
- He didn’t deny the report, but said more steps must be taken to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- "We have always seen normalization as the end result for a path. Normalization between the region and Israel will bring benefits but we won’t be able to reap those benefits unless we are able to address the issue of Palestine," bin Farhan said.
- "The fact it remains unresolved continues to bring significant instability to the region. The priority needs to be how to push the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and if it happens it will benefit the whole region," he added.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog said on a different panel at the Davos conference that Saudi Arabia is an important country and Israel would like it to join the Abraham Accords.
- "But it's a process and it takes time," he said
The big picture: Increasing oil production has been a longstanding request by the Biden administration to the Saudi government. But the Saudis so far have not shown openness to it.
- Biden needs Saudi Arabia to increase oil production in order to try to bring gas prices down ahead of the midterm elections.
- The U.S. also wants increased production from Saudi Arabia in order to be able to push for a wide range of sanctions on Russian oil amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.
- The Saudis have so far stuck to their agreement with Russia over oil production levels. But this agreement is due to expire in September, which could create an opening for a deal with the U.S. over future production levels.