Biden’s Saudi trip is framed as centering on national security, but oil is the most urgent factor.


For public consumption, the White House has argued that President Biden’s decision to go to Saudi Arabia was driven by a whole range of national security issues, not just oil. But oil is in fact the most urgent reason for the trip at a time of high gas prices.

Sensitive to the appearance of sacrificing a principled stand on human rights for cheaper energy, the president does not plan to announce any oil deal during his stop in Jeddah. But the two sides have an understanding that Saudi Arabia will ramp up production once a current quota agreement expires in September, just in time for the fall midterm election campaign, according to current and former American officials.

Martin Indyk, a former Middle East diplomat for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, said that the exact amounts were still uncertain, but that Saudi Arabia was expected to increase production by about 750,000 barrels a day and the United Arab Emirates would follow suit with an additional 500,000 barrels a day, for a combined 1.25 million.

How much that would push down prices at the pump in the United States is unclear, and it may not be quick enough or deep enough to change the public mood before November.

“That will be the kind of deal that justifies the trip, but since they’re not going to be announcing it, it leaves the president in a situation where he has to justify it in other terms, and so therefore the focus on Israel and normalization and integrating defense,” Mr. Indyk said. “The president’s defensiveness on this is wrongheaded. He should embrace it.”

Instead, Mr. Biden has tried to make the case that he is not visiting Saudi Arabia so much as meeting with multiple leaders from the region in the form of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of six states led by Saudi Arabia, as well as the leaders of three other Arab nations, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.

But White House officials concede that Mr. Biden will not be able to avoid Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman altogether, and there will be that damaging photo — damaging, at least, for Mr. Biden. For the crown prince the picture will be invaluable as he seeks to rehabilitate his international image.

Some analysts said that alone may be enough for the Saudis.

“I think the odds the Saudis would try to embarrass the president in this trip are relatively low, because I think it would damage precisely the kinds of strategic things they’re trying to do,” said Jon B. Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “So I think their incentives for cooperation are high.”

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