President Biden took a hard line on Saudi Arabia when he took office, calling it a “pariah” for its human rights abuses. But he recently made a comeback. Oil is a big part of the reason.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
When he was running for president, Joe Biden said he would bring about big changes in the way the US deals with Saudi Arabia. This followed the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, something US intelligence believes was carried out on the order of the Saudi government. Biden promised that he would defend human rights.
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CHAIRMAN JOE BIDEN: And I would make it very clear that we weren’t actually going to sell them any more guns. We would, in effect, make them pay the price and make them, in effect, the pariahs that they are. There is very little social redemptive value of the – in the current government of Saudi Arabia.
KELLY: Well, Biden is now talking about the country very differently, and the White House is considering a presidential visit to Saudi Arabia.
NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow joins us now to take a look at what exactly has changed here. Hi Scott.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good afternoon.
KELLY: What exactly has changed here? What’s happening?
DETROW: Let’s start there. Yeah, I mean, the biggest change in the world between now and 2019, I think, is the global supply of oil, right? A key response to the Russian war in Ukraine from the US and its allies has been to try to isolate Russia economically, and much of that is no longer buying Russian oil. And that took a lot of oil off the market, which made gasoline much more expensive, among other things.
And you’re seeing a big push from the US and its allies to get oil producers like Saudi Arabia to drill more. Saudi Arabia, of course, has the biggest unexplored oil fields in the world. And, you know, the White House doesn’t like to talk about it. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told me this week that oil is never on the agenda when US and Saudi officials meet.
DETROW: But, you know, last week she said that. I find it hard to believe. And indeed, she released a statement last week praising Saudi Arabia’s leadership role as OPEC+ announced a major boost in oil. And, you know, Mary Louise, we could talk about this for the rest of the show. But there are many other ties between the US and Saudi Arabia, including long-standing military ties between the two.
KELLY: Counterterrorism ties, etc. — but when we hear Biden there promising to make Saudi Arabia pay the price, make them an outcast, I wonder how that happens to people who are focused on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and hear a change here.
DETROW: Yeah, there’s a lot of anger and a lot of disappointment. Sarah Leah Whitson is the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now. This is a non-profit organization that Jamal Khashoggi started. And she said she was always skeptical that Biden would keep those early promises. But she said this shift is especially disheartening at this point given the fact that President Biden is now hosting the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. And he has taken such a tough stance, saying he will not invite autocratic governments from the Americas to the summit.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: It’s funny if it weren’t so tragic. The United States’ relationship with these governments in the Middle East undermines what the Biden administration has said is a national security priority, a global priority to defeat authoritarianism, to promote democracy.
DETROW: And you’ve heard Biden talk a lot about this when it comes to Ukraine. And Whitson says it’s hard to sell when Biden is talking about it as a rallying point, but at the same time indicating that he will deal with an autocratic government if it helps the US.
KELLY: When you point this out, this criticism of the White House, what do they say?
DETROW: There’s a lot of talk from White House officials that the president will engage with other countries, other leaders, if he thinks the US can gain something from the meeting. The president was asked about this a few days ago. He framed a possible trip to Saudi Arabia as an effort to focus on peace in the region.
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BIDEN: I’m not going to change my view of human rights, but as President of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.
DETROW: You know, but all these things about US interests were true when Biden made that initial promise. And it’s not like he’s inexperienced. He was a longtime foreign policy realist. He was vice president, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But I think one thing Biden probably didn’t expect is that oil prices would be so high that he’d face $5 a gallon gasoline, which is a pretty bad political responsibility.
KELLY: Pretty quick, Scott, if there’s a trip, when?
DETROW: Possibly next month. There is still no official word. But there will be a lot of questions, including from Democratic allies in Congress who say if that happens…
KELLY: All right.
DETROW: …They’re going to want to know why the president is making this choice.
KELLY: Thanks, Scott.
KELLY: Scott Detrow of NPR.
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