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Biden has changed his tune on Saudi Arabia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Back when he was running for president, Joe Biden said he would bring big changes to how the U.S. deals with Saudi Arabia. This was after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, something U.S. intelligence believes was carried out by order of the Saudi government. Biden promised he would stand up for human rights.

(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.

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. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: What exactly has changed here? What's going on?

DETROW: Let's start there. Yeah, I mean, the biggest change to the world between now and 2019, I think, is the global oil supply, right? A key response to the Russian war in Ukraine from the U.S. and its allies has been to try and economically isolate Russia, and a big part of that is no longer buying Russian oil. And that has taken a lot of oil off the market, which has made gasoline way more expensive, among other things.

And you are seeing a big push from the U.S. and its allies to get oil producers, like Saudi Arabia, to drill more. Saudi Arabia, of course, has the world's largest untapped oil fields. And, you know, the White House does not like to talk about this. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told me this week that oil is never on the agenda when American and Saudi Arabian officials meet.

KELLY: Really?

DETROW: But, you know, last week she did say that. I think it's hard to believe. And in fact, she did put out a statement last week praising Saudi Arabia's leadership role when OPEC+ announced a big boost in oil. And, you know, Mary Louise, we could talk about this for the rest of the show. But there are so many other ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, including long military ties between the two.

KELLY: Counterterrorism ties, etc. - but when we heard Biden there promising to make Saudi Arabia pay the price, make them a pariah, I wonder how that goes down with people who are focused on Saudi Arabia's human rights record and hearing a shift 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. That's a nonprofit that Jamal Khashoggi had started. And she said she was always skeptical Biden would keep those initial promises. But she said this shift is especially disheartening at this moment due to the fact that right now, President Biden is hosting the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. And he took such a hardline stance going in, saying he is not going to invite autocratic governments from the Americas to the summit.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: It's funny if it weren't so tragic. America's 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 about that so much when it comes to Ukraine. And Whitson says it just makes it a hard sell when Biden is talking about that as a rallying point but, at the same time, indicating he'll deal with an autocratic government if it helps the U.S.

KELLY: When you point this out, this criticism to 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 U.S. can gain something from the meeting. The president was asked about this a few days ago. He framed a potential trip to Saudi Arabia as an effort to focus on peace in the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I'm not going to change my view on 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 of those things about U.S. interests were true when Biden made that initial promise. And it's not like he was inexperienced. He was a longtime foreign policy realist. He was vice president, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But I think one thing that Biden probably did not expect is oil prices to be so high that he was facing $5-a-gallon gasoline, which is a pretty bad political liability.

KELLY: Real quick, Scott, if there is a trip, when?

DETROW: Possibly next month. There's still no official word. But there's going to be a lot of questions, including from Democratic allies in Congress who say if this happens...

KELLY: OK.

DETROW: ...They will want to know why the president is making this choice.

KELLY: Thank you, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Scott Detrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.