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What's on Biden's agenda for his first Middle East trip as president


Over the next few days, President Biden visits Israel, then goes to the West Bank and then Saudi Arabia. He will meet the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The president once referred to the kingdom as a global pariah. But when a country is a major oil producer and one of the world's twenty largest economies and a big actor in this region and an old U.S. ally and even kind of a quiet friend to Israel, the United States pays attention. So let's talk about this visit with Giorgio Cafiero, who's CEO of Gulf State Analytics. Welcome back to the program.

GIORGIO CAFIERO: Good to be with you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: What caused the president to change his view of Saudi Arabia or maybe, I should say, his approach to Saudi Arabia?

CAFIERO: I think there are a host of issues on the international stage that have been taking place this year in a rapidly evolving environment, which has led to the Biden administration determining that any moral costs of Biden making this trip to the kingdom would not outweigh the perceived benefits of doing so. And in general, the Biden administration understands that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, is set to be the next king of Saudi Arabia. And they think this meeting between Biden and the leadership in Saudi Arabia has a lot to do with the White House simply coming to terms with reality and preparing for a future in which Mohammed bin Salman is on the throne.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of one particular incident when you talk about practical needs that might outweigh the moral costs of reengaging with Saudi Arabia. When the U.S. was trying to rally the world to isolate Russia, the Saudis seemed less helpful than the U.S. might have wished. And it immediately became apparent that's one of a host of reasons that the U.S. might need the Saudis.

CAFIERO: Well, yes. And intensifying great power competition is a very important part of the picture here. One of the reasons why Joe Biden is going to be going to Saudi Arabia is to try to bring Riyadh a little closer to the U.S. and other Western countries, geopolitical orbits. And this comes at a time in which the U.S. has been very concerned about Saudi Arabia, as well as other Arab states moving closer and closer to China and Russia. So I think this trip is very important from the standpoint of the Biden administration's efforts to really assert U.S. influence in the Gulf region.

INSKEEP: Has the U.S., then, had to just drop its questions about the murder of a journalist, Jamal Khashoggi?

CAFIERO: Well, I'm not sure we could go as far as saying that the U.S. is going to entirely drop this issue. But it is clear that the Biden administration is not making this the sort of centerpiece of its approach to the crown prince. For all intents and purposes, we can say that Mohammed bin Salman, for the most part, basically, got away with that murder. And the fact that Joe Biden is going to be going to Saudi Arabia this week and meeting with the crown prince really underscores that point. This really marks the end of any idea of the Biden administration making good on Biden's pledge from 2019 to treat Saudi Arabia as a global pariah.

INSKEEP: I wonder if the itinerary of this visit illustrates another way that the Saudis would like to make themselves useful to the U.S. and to its allies. What does it say when the president goes from Israel and the West Bank to Saudi Arabia?

CAFIERO: Well, this is an important factor, too, has to do with the Saudi-Israeli relations and also Arab-Israeli relations in general. One of the ways in which the Biden administration is really selling this trip to the American media and the American public is by emphasizing that Biden going to Jeddah is going to be good from the standpoint of Israeli interests. While he's in Saudi Arabia and also when he's in Israel, before he gets to the kingdom, this topic of the Abraham Accords will be very central to discussions.

While Saudi Arabia has not ever had formalized relations with Israel - and I don't think we can expect Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords - there's no doubt that Riyadh has been important to the Arab region's trend toward normalization. And Saudi Arabia has been taking many steps toward sort of an unofficial normalization with Israel. And on this trip, I think Biden is going to definitely be talking to the Saudis about some more incremental steps toward a de facto normalization. If Saudi Arabia can be supportive of other Arab or Muslim countries entering the Abraham Accords, it makes it a lot easier for those countries to establish full-fledged...


CAFIERO: ...Diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv.

INSKEEP: The Abraham Accords, of course, brought some Arab nations into relations with Israel. And you're saying that the Saudis may not go quite that far, but they have certainly been informally friendly to the Israelis. So the United States now comes to the Saudis. There's a price for this. We mentioned overlooking, to some extent, human rights abuses. But what else, if anything, do the Saudis need or want from the United States?

CAFIERO: Well, the Saudi leadership, obviously, is having to contend with the fact that the Iranian nuclear talks could collapse in acrimony. And this creates a lot of uncertainty in the Gulf, as well as the wider Middle East. So I think the Saudis are going to want the Biden administration to demonstrate strong U.S. commitment to the protection of the kingdom in the face of what could be some rising levels of Iranian aggression. I personally don't think the Biden administration will earn the confidence of the Saudis in this regard. But I think a lot of Iran-related issues are important to what Saudi Arabia is going to want from this meeting. We're talking also about larger arms - new arms sales down the line and also with an uncertain future in Yemen.

INSKEEP: Giorgio Cafiero is CEO of Gulf State Analytics. Appreciate your analysis.

CAFIERO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.