By Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden turns his attention this month to a sensitive trip to the Middle East that will test his ability to reset relations with Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince after Biden denounced him as a pariah.
So far, Biden has been pointedly unclear on whether he will have face-to-face talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi de facto leader who the U.S. intelligence community concluded was behind the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist and political opponent Jamal Khashoggi.
While Biden is expected to meet Saudi King Salman and the crown prince while there, Biden says his visit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is about participating in a summit of Gulf nations, not about meeting the crown prince.
"It’s in Saudi Arabia, but it's not about Saudi Arabia," Biden said. "And so there's no commitment that is being made or -- I'm not even sure; I guess I will see the king and the crown prince, but that's -- that's not the meeting I'm going to. They'll be part of a much larger meeting," he told reporters at the NATO summit in Madrid last Thursday.
Biden's dancing around on the issue has led to some consternation among Saudi officials who back the crown prince and see the president's comments as insulting, said a source familiar with the dynamics.
"Every time he says 'I’m not meeting with him' it causes problems," the source said. "You can't ask them for a favor and keep denying you’re even meeting with them."
Biden had denounced bin Salman, known by the initials MbS, as a "pariah" over the Khashoggi death and declared early in his presidency that he would focus U.S. relations on King Salman, not his son.
But facing a host of other problems related to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Biden was persuaded by aides to embark on an improvement in relations.
He needs oil-rich Saudi Arabia's help at a time of high gasoline prices and as he encourages efforts to end the war in Yemen after the Saudis recently extended a ceasefire there. There are also the U.S. priorities of curbing Iran's influence in the Middle East and China's global influence.
Biden was initially opposed to the Saudi visit, seeing it as a boost for MbS and counter to his condemnation of the kingdom’s human rights record, according to one U.S. official.
The president went back and forth on the issue for weeks before aides swayed him by arguing that high oil prices and the regional threat from Iran had made the trip necessary, the official said on condition of anonymity.
His final decision was further spurred by encouragement from Israel, which hopes the Saudi visit will secure Saudi support for Israeli-Arab rapprochement. Biden noted in Madrid that the Israelis "have come out so strongly for my going to Saudi."
Biden will first stop in Israel on his July 13-16 trip.
PUSH ON HUMAN RIGHTS
The president has attempted to straddle the line between placating those who support a strategic improvement in relations and human rights advocates who say the visit is at odds with his promise to put human rights at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.
Four veteran Democratic senators - Jeff Merkley, Patrick Leahy, Ron Wyden and Richard Blumenthal - sent a letter to Biden urging him to use the trip to center the conversation around human rights concerns in the region.
"For too long, we’ve allowed the exigencies of geopolitics to dictate our policies toward the Kingdom. Today, as we once again face multiple crises, let us not allow the urgency of the moment distract from what you have called the defining challenge of our time – defending democracy and human rights," they wrote.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Biden's trip is necessary to recalibrate relations with a key ally but that, "Politically there is no upside for the president."
Biden is expected to use his talks with the Saudis to coax Riyadh toward security and diplomatic contacts with Israel as part of an effort to strengthen the regional bulwark against Iran, according to a person in Washington familiar with the matter.
The source stressed, however, that while the administration expects to make progress during Biden's trip, full normalization of relations between the two Middle East powers is still a long way off.
Saudi Arabia has signaled its backing for the Abraham Accords under which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain forged relations with Israel two years ago, but it has stopped short of recognizing Israel.
People familiar with Biden's stance expect him to bring up human rights when he visits Saudi Arabia, but what form that takes is unclear.
"I have every confidence that human rights will be on the agenda and something he will raise in every meeting," said a former Biden senior administration official. "He is not someone who has ever shied away."
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mary Milliken and Chizu Nomiyama)