The White House is working toward a deal between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel that could act as a stepping stone to normalizing ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh and lay the groundwork for a presidential visit, according to a report.
President Joe Biden is expected to travel to the Middle East next month, heightening the prospect of a sit-down with Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A meeting would showcase a thaw in the relationship, which has strained over security and energy disagreements and after a U.S. intelligence report blamed the crown prince for the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
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Now, after months of outreach by senior Biden administration officials, Washington could be eyeing a breakthrough with Riyadh.
White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and the State Department’s energy envoy Amos Hochstein met with senior Saudi officials this week to discuss the transfer of two strategic Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, oil production, and the relationship between Riyadh and Washington, current and former U.S. officials told Axios.
The exchange would finalize the transfer of two strategic islands to Saudi Arabia, which feature in a 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. The move could set the stage for a significant agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel and would herald a diplomatic coup for Biden.
Normalization may still be some way off: Saudi Arabia has reiterated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands in the way. But these first steps could form part of a set of agreements that Washington views as necessary for a presidential meeting with the crown prince.
Senior Biden administration officials have labored for months to resolve differences with Saudi Arabia, an important U.S. partner in the region. Still, Riyadh has resisted Washington's entreaties to pump more oil as gas prices have surged, complicating Biden's domestic and foreign policy considerations, including Western efforts to isolate Russia over its invasion of Ukraine by cutting off its oil exports. The refusal is also the latest evidence of decades of understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United States over security and energy markets eroding.
Riyadh has bent to Washington's will before. In 2020, former President Donald Trump told the crown prince that he would be powerless to stop Congress from curtailing U.S. military support to the kingdom unless the OPEC oil cartel slashed production.
"It's interesting that the Biden administration seems to be using the carrot more than the stick," said Annelle Sheline, a nonresident fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and a research fellow at the Quincy Institute. "It actually seems like maybe the stick worked better."
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A former administration official told the Washington Examiner that Biden should get something in return for a meeting with the crown prince, which could open him to criticism after promising to make the “pariah” kingdom “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s murder on the campaign trail.
Asked about the prospect of a presidential visit, a National Security Council official said the White House has no travel to announce.