Biden separately announced Thursday that the truce in Yemen had been extended, similarly praising the Saudis for showing “courageous leadership by taking early initiatives to endorse and implement the terms of the UN-led truce.”
The official said the timing of the announcements is thoughtful, and lays the groundwork for a possible meeting this month between Biden and bin Salman.
As CNN previously reported, with Saudi Arabia currently holding the presidency of the Gulf Cooperation Council, any engagement between Biden and the crown prince will likely coincide with the council meeting in Riyadh later this month. A separate White House official told CNN that the meeting has not yet been concluded, but if the president determines that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with a foreign leader and that such engagement can produce results, then he will.”
A former senior intelligence official familiar with the planning told CNN that all sides were “still working” to finalize the meeting “but things are going well.”
“But any decisions about the trip will be determined in part with the security and logistical requirements that accompany a presidential trip,” the former official added.
The meeting between US and Saudi leaders could have been considered routine, but now represents a major shift due to the recent strain in the relationship. Biden has not communicated directly with bin Salman, who is considered the daily ruler of Saudi Arabia, since taking office, opting instead to speak directly with the father of the crown prince, King Salman, the 86-year-old king.
Biden has been highly critical of the Saudis’ human rights record, their war in Yemen, and the role his government played in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Asked about Biden’s 2019 statements that Saudi Arabia should be a “pariah” on the world stage, White House Press Secretary Karen Jean-Pierre said earlier this week that his “words still stand.”
But the National Security Council’s Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, and the State Department’s top adviser on global energy security, Amos Hochstein, have for months worked behind the scenes to repair the relationship, as part of a growing White House recognition that the relationship with the crown prince will be essential as the United States works to isolate Russia and finding alternative sources of oil and natural gas.
Another official told CNN Thursday that the United States views Saudi Arabia as an important “strategic partner” on a range of issues despite the country’s human rights record. But the official noted that the United States still had “concerns” about “Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and past behavior, many of which predate our administration.”
Those concerns were raised with Saudi Arabia, the official said, adding that “communications and diplomacy” with Saudi Arabia “intensified recently.”
However, the meeting is likely to spark some controversy at home for the president. Even before Biden’s trip was officially announced, it had come under scrutiny by groups who accuse the kingdom of gross human rights abuses.
In a letter to the president on Thursday, a group representing family members of those who died on the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks urged Biden to raise Saudi Arabia’s role in the attack if he met the crown prince or other leaders in Riyadh.
“It is imperative that you prioritize accountability for 9/11 in any conversations between members of your administration and Saudi officials, including your conversations with the Crown Prince or other members of the Saudi royal family,” the group wrote.
The Saudi government has denied any government involvement in the attacks. But allegations of Saudi government complicity have long been a bone of contention in Washington. Fifteen of the 19 al-Qaeda terrorists who hijacked four American planes on September 11, 2001 were Saudi citizens.
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