By, Alex Gangitano, Morgan Chalfant and Brett Samuels At The Hill
President Biden on Saturday, July 13th capped his first trip to the Middle East since taking office, a four-day visit that saw both progress and controversy.
The president met with Israeli officials to promote ties between the U.S. and Israel, as well as Palestinian officials amid efforts to maintain peace and foster collaboration in the region.
And Biden, who pledged on the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a global pariah over human rights violations, met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials about energy and defense issues, highlighting the way political realities have necessitated cooperation between the U.S. and the kingdom.
Here are five takeaways from Biden’s trip:
Biden wades into controversy with Saudi crown prince
Biden and his team had for weeks disputed that he was meeting with the Saudi crown prince, instead arguing Crown Prince Mohammed would merely be present at meetings with other leaders.
But one of the defining images of the trip depicted Biden fist-bumping the crown prince, prompting outrage from critics who raised concerns about his involvement in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
U.S. intelligence had concluded in a report released this year that the crown prince was involved in the plot to kill Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the country.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) tweeted that the fist bump was a “visual reminder of the continuing grip oil-rich autocrats have on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.” Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan called the fist bump “shameful.”
A short time after the greeting, the president sat across a table from the crown prince as part of a meeting with Saudi leaders.
Biden later told reporters he raised Khashoggi’s murder at the very start of the meeting, and that he told the crown prince that he believed him responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
“I said, very straightforwardly, for an American president to be silent on the issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am,” Biden said. “I’ll always stand up for our values.”
A White House fact sheet said that Biden in his meetings “received commitments with respect to reforms and institutional safeguards in place to guard against any such conduct in the future.”
No immediate breakthroughs on oil
Biden emerged from his meetings in Saudi Arabia without an immediate deliverable on oil production, but he expressed optimism that oil-producing nations would take steps to boost the global supply in the coming months.
White House officials downplayed the significance high gas prices would play in Biden’s trip, but high gas prices in the U.S. and global energy disruptions from Russia’s war in Ukraine were widely seen as primary motivators for the trip to Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest oil producers.
The president said in remarks Friday evening that he and Saudi ministers, as well as the crown prince, “had a good discussion on ensuring global energy security and adequate oil supplies.”
“I’m doing all I can to increase supply for the United States of America, which I expect to happen,” Biden said in remarks from Jeddah. “The Saudis share that urgency and based on our discussions today I expect we’ll see further steps in the coming weeks.”
The White House also emphasized a new framework between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on clean energy production.
Experts said Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia was unlikely to produce any major announcement on oil production on its own, but that the president could nudge the kingdom in the hopes of a future move to free up more supply.
The White House is eyeing an August meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+), a group of roughly a dozen nations that influence global oil supply, saying any major announcement would likely stem from that meeting.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Friday that any concrete action on oil supplies would need to result from a decision by OPEC+, of which Saudi Arabia is a de facto leader.
During his meeting Saturday with the Gulf Cooperation Council, Biden said the nations agree on the need to ensure “adequate supplies to meet global needs” adding he was looking “forward to seeing what’s coming in the coming months.”
Saudi Arabia, Israel inch toward normalization
Biden tried to carry on the work of his predecessor, former President Trump, to help Israel normalize relations with other Arab nations. His trip to the Middle East saw a modest, but meaningful, step in that direction.
Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to all airlines, including those flying to and from Israel. The step was hailed by the White House as an important sign of progress toward normalization. Saudi Arabia is also reportedly going to allow direct flights from Israel transporting Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca.
“This is the first tangible step on the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations,” Biden told reporters on Friday following meetings with Saudi officials.
Biden in Israel also said he strongly supports the Abraham Accords, promoting the Trump-era normalization declarations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain that the Biden administration hopes to expand to other Arab nations.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the Saudi announcement a positive “first step” and said the Israeli government would “continue working with necessary caution, for the sake of Israel’s economy, security and the good of our citizens.”
Biden tries to display toughness on Iran
Biden sought to assure Israel that the U.S. is committed to its security and preventing a nuclear Iran, while vowing to continue diplomatic efforts to piece back together the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Speaking alongside Lapid at a press conference Thursday, Biden affirmed his belief that diplomacy remained the best path to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but said the U.S. wouldn’t “wait forever” for Iran to return to the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“We’re not circling a date on the calendar. The deal is on the table. Should the Iranians choose to take it, we’re ready for a compliance-for-compliance return,” Sullivan told reporters on Friday, adding that the U.S. was not waiting to put “further economic pressure” on Iran even as Biden seeks a return to the deal.
Israel is opposed to the Obama-era nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2018. The cracks between the two countries over Iran were on display at Thursday’s press conference, as Lapid said at the same press conference that “diplomacy will not stop them.”
“The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program the free world will use force,” Lapid said.
In an interview with Israel’s Channel 12, Biden said the U.S. was willing to use force to prevent a nuclear Iran but only as a “last resort.” In a joint declaration signed by Biden and Lapid, the U.S. said it is “prepared to use all elements of its national power” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Biden’s domestic agenda takes hit while he’s overseas
Biden’s trip came as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) delivered a tough blow to his agenda, saying he would reject the climate spending and tax hikes on the wealthy in the budget reconciliation package.
The president in response called on the Senate to move forward with the slimmed-down health only reconciliation package before August recess since Manchin said he would only support a provision to lower prescription drug prices and a two-year extension of expiring health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is pushing to move the reconciliation package to the floor before September. Biden vowed while on his trip to move on his climate agenda through executive action if it doesn’t pass in the Senate, which came during his conversations with Saudi leadership over energy security.
Gas prices in the U.S. have remained high, although are declining, but new inflation data this week showed that annual inflation hit 9.1 percent in June, the highest rate of price growth since November 1981.
Biden returned to Washington with a sinking approval rating and support for his reelection in 2024 reaching record-lows among Democrats.