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Biden will visit Saudi Arabia to ask for an increase in oil production

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

President Biden's upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia next month is already getting a lot of attention. It's for a meeting with Arab leaders including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Biden administration has blamed the kingdom and particularly the crown prince for human rights abuses like the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and in the war in Yemen. But now, the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia's help. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam joins us now. Hey, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Sue.

DAVIS: Jackie, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is nearly eight decades old, but has it ever been as tumultuous as it is right now?

NORTHAM: Yeah, you're right. I mean, this is a really important alliance, but it's definitely been strained over the years. And, you know, just for some history, the relationship was initially sealed back in 1945, and that was when President Roosevelt met with Saudi King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, who founded the kingdom. And they met on a warship in the Suez Canal, and it was the first time the king had left Saudi Arabia. And we found some old newsreel footage of that meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: An American destroyer comes alongside a cruiser at Great Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal in Egypt. It brings Ibn Saud, king of the 5 million people of Saudi Arabia, to a conference with President Roosevelt.

NORTHAM: And so the king brought along carpets and dozens of members of the royal court and reportedly a number of sheep to slaughter on board. But, you know, the two leaders, they forged a strategic alliance based on security in the region as well as oil. American geologists had already discovered oil in the kingdom a few years earlier. And, you know, those two things - regional security and oil - have helped hold the sometimes tenuous relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. together over the years.

DAVIS: Can you talk about some of the ways the two countries have cooperated but also clashed over the years?

NORTHAM: Yeah. And, you know, in a lot of practical and security matters, they've worked well together - remember the first Gulf War? - and that was an enormous operation, which involved sending thousands of Western soldiers to protect Saudi Arabia's oil fields from being attacked by Iraq. They also worked together to drive Russian forces out of Afghanistan.

But there have been a lot of disputes. You know, the Saudis imposed the oil embargo in the 1970s, which drove up the price of gas at the pump. And that was over U.S. policy towards Israel. There have been serious breaches in the relationship over extremism, and a lot of Saudi money has gone to extremists. Think of 9/11.

DAVIS: Yeah, of course.

NORTHAM: Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. And, you know, there are ongoing concerns in the U.S. about the Saudi-led war in Yemen and certainly human rights abuses including the treatment of women.

DAVIS: You were in Saudi Arabia early on as Mohammed bin Salman emerged as the power in the kingdom while his father, King Salman, has aged. What kind of impression has he made?

NORTHAM: Well, at the beginning, he was like a breath of fresh air in the kingdom. He introduced all sorts of changes including allowing women to drive. And that was about the time that I was there. It was back in 2018. You know, there was a lot of excitement at that time, but there were also dark undertones. And it became apparent very quickly that MBS, the crown prince, brook no dissent. He would crush any sort of criticism including throwing activists in prison for speaking out against him or what he was doing.

DAVIS: And then, of course, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed later in 2018, and it caused outrage across the world. How did that affect the U.S.-Saudi relationship?

NORTHAM: Well, you're right. The killing made the crown prince really - for a short time anyway - an international pariah. U.S. intelligence determined that the crown prince was involved in Khashoggi's death by Saudi operatives. Now, at the time, Trump was president, and he had created a very warm relationship with the crown prince. And he questioned the CIA's finding. Here he is here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: The CIA has looked at it. They've studied it a lot. They have nothing definitive.

NORTHAM: There's a stark difference, though, between the Trump and the Biden White House when it comes to the crown prince.

DAVIS: Right. I mean, when he was campaigning for President, Biden harshly criticized the crown prince. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And I would make it very clear. We were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. There's very little social redeeming value of the - in the present government in Saudi Arabia.

DAVIS: So why then is Biden going to Saudi Arabia now?

NORTHAM: Oil. And, you know, Biden wants the crown prince to raise oil production, you know, to help lower the price at the gas pumps here in the U.S. But there are other reasons. Saudi Arabia is courting relations with both Russia and China. And also, there's still an interest in maintaining a solid and, you know, cohesive front against Iran. And the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia to help with that.

DAVIS: And does the crown prince have any asks of the U.S.?

NORTHAM: Well, U.S. weapons, for a start. You know, some weapons sales were suspended over concerns about the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The Saudis also want security guarantees. The kingdom feels it doesn't have enough backing from the U.S. when it's come under attack from Iran or Iranian militias. You know, the crown prince is also looking to build up his relationship. He's traveling the region. He's making deals. And a meeting with President Biden would be important to help rebuild his reputation.

DAVIS: So is the world just supposed to forget about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi?

NORTHAM: No. And, you know, President Biden is facing a lot of criticism by human rights groups and members of Congress for making this trip to the kingdom. Human Rights Watch said Biden should get commitments on human rights before he does travel to Saudi Arabia. You know, but the fact is the crown prince is really the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia and will likely be around for several decades. What will be interesting to see is if, you know, the two men shake hands during this meeting later in July.

DAVIS: That's NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Thank you, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "THANK YOU MK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.