Saudi Arabia and the US are discussing a “likely” visit by President Joe Biden to the kingdom, Arab diplomatic sources told The National.
Negotiations between Riyadh and Washington are “intense and continuing” and involve security, energy and economic co-operation, the sources said. No dates have been finalised, they said.
Asked about a trip to the Middle East before the end of this month, Mr Biden told reporters it was a possibility.
“There is a possibility that I would be going to meet both the Israelis and some Arab countries at the time, including, I expect … Saudi Arabia,” Mr Biden said on Friday from Delaware.
He cautioned, however, that there was as yet no deal. “I have no direct plans at the moment,” he said.
The White House is now planning a broader trip to the Middle East next month, sources said.
When asked if he would be open to meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on such a trip, Mr Biden replied: “We’re getting way ahead of ourselves here.”
He framed the prospective visit as part of US efforts to “bring more stability and peace to the Middle East”.
A source close to the Iraqi government said Mr Biden is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia as a GCC summit takes place.
Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, Egypt President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II will also attend, the source said.
During a stop in Riyadh, Mr Biden is likely to meet the crown prince, as well as the leaders of other Arab nations including Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the UAE, The New York Times reported.
“We currently have no travel to announce but we can assure you that what the president is focused on first and foremost is how his engagements with foreign leaders advance American interests,” a senior White House official told The National. “That’s as true with Saudi Arabia as anywhere else.
“Just as he has engaged recently with leaders of Asean in Asia and this week with the Summit of the Americas, the president will look for opportunities to engage with leaders from the Middle East region.”
Mr Biden views Saudi Arabia as an important partner on a host of initiatives that the US is working on both in the region and around the world, the official said.
“If he determines that it’s in the interests of the United States to engage with a foreign leader and that such an engagement can deliver results, then he’ll do so,” they said.
“In the case of Saudi Arabia, which has been a strategic partner of the US for nearly 80 years, there’s no question that important interests are interwoven with Saudi Arabia.”
Gulf 'courted' by Moscow and Washington
Mr Biden’s visit is expected to take place during a diplomatic race between Moscow and Washington for Gulf support on the Russia-Ukraine war, said a member of a European official delegation which is on a Middle East tour to discuss the crisis.
“The Gulf is being courted by both sides,” the American diplomat said. “It is good [for the US] that Biden is coming because the US needs to counterbalance Russia’s activity in the region.
Mr Biden has already “given in a bit” to the Arab side by keeping Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the US terrorist list.
“But the US remains dogged by its perceived loss of reliability and the impression in the region that Biden is a weak president,” the diplomat said. “Of course, the unreliability of the US remains an issue. The Gulf states are still asking what will be the US position if we are attacked by Iran. And now we have the food war and these countries have access to cheap commodities from Russia.
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“It is tough for the US and it difficult to imagine the Gulf supporting the Americans the way they did before. Another factor is how much is the region is turning toward China. Which means in a way that they are turning toward Russia.”
On Thursday, Mr Biden welcomed the extension of a UN-brokered truce between Yemen's warring parties and said Saudi Arabia had demonstrated “courageous leadership” by enacting its terms.
The truce is “a clear example of where [US] engagement with a foreign leader can deliver results”, the White House official said.
“Ending the Yemeni war is a priority of the president’s and the king of Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi crown prince played a critical role in securing an extension of the truce that has been in place since April. This truce brought about one of the most peaceful periods since this terrible war began seven years ago and saved thousands of lives.”
Mr Biden has also repeatedly confirmed US commitment to supporting Saudi Arabia in the defence of its territory from Iran and other threats, the official said.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis