Biden’s Saudi visit aims to balance rights, oil and security

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Joe Biden met on Friday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man he once vowed to shun for human rights abuses, and shared a cordial thumbs up as he attempted to restore an important diplomatic relationship, strengthen Middle Eastern security and increase the global flow of oil.

It was the first meeting for the two leaders, and their friendly gesture was quickly criticized. But Biden has insisted he hasn’t been shy about pressuring the crown prince over the kingdom’s abuses, particularly the 2018 murder of American writer Jamal Khashoggi, who US intelligence says , was approved by the heir to the throne.

“I said, quite frankly, that an American president being silent on a human rights issue is inconsistent with who we are and who I am,” Biden said after the meeting. “I will always stand up for our values.”

Biden said Prince Mohammed claimed he was “not personally responsible” for the death of Khashoggi, who wrote for The Washington Post. “I indicated that I thought he was,” replied the president.

Although he ruled out any focus on the punch, it was described as “shameful” by Post editor Fred Ryan.

“He projected a level of privacy and comfort that offers MBS the unwarranted redemption he so desperately seeks,” Ryan said, referring to the crown prince by his initials.

Biden had long refused to speak to Prince Mohammed. But human rights concerns have been somewhat overshadowed by other challenges, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and rising gas prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. .

At the same time, Saudi Arabia wants to strengthen its security relationship with the United States and secure investments to transform its economy into one less dependent on pumping oil.

For now, it looks like the two leaders are taking progressive steps together. Biden announced that US peacekeepers would leave the Red Sea island of Tiran by the end of the year, paving the way for Saudi Arabia to develop tourist attractions there.

Due to a complex diplomatic arrangement governing control of the strategically located island, America’s departure required Israel’s assent, and the deal was the latest reflection of warmer Israeli-Saudi relations. .

The deal followed an earlier announcement that the Saudis were ending strict restrictions on Israeli commercial flights over their territory.

Biden also said progress was being made to extend a ceasefire in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia had been battling Iran-backed militants for years, leading to a humanitarian crisis.

The United States has played down expectations for any immediate increase in Saudi oil production, which could help mitigate high gas prices that are politically damaging to Biden at home. But after meeting the crown prince, Biden hinted that relief could be on the way, although “you won’t see it for a few weeks.”

The current OPEC+ deal expires in September, opening the door for potentially higher production thereafter, although questions remain over how much excess capacity the Saudis have.

Biden’s nearly three hours at the royal palace was widely seen as a diplomatic victory for Prince Mohammed, who has tried to rehabilitate his image, attract investment to the kingdom for his reform plans and strengthen relations with security of the kingdom with the United States.

The Saudis carefully controlled the visit, even trying to prevent Post reporters from briefing government officials before relenting.

They also posted a constant stream of photos and videos of private meetings that journalists were not allowed to attend. Biden was shown shaking hands with King Salman, the 86-year-old monarch who suffers from poor health, including two hospitalizations this year, as the crown prince looks on.

Afterwards, reporters were only briefly allowed into a meeting Biden and the crown prince held with their advisers. The two men were seated opposite each other, an arrangement that reinforced the perception that they are peers. It’s an image the crown prince has worked to promote as he cements his path to the throne after sidelining, holding and seizing the assets of royal rivals and critics.

Prince Mohammed’s rise to power has ushered in a new era for the kingdom, one in which Saudi Arabia becomes more assertive on the world stage as it expands its relations with Russia and China. Moreover, the budding ties with Israel are not only underpinned by a shared enmity with Iran, but also a possible shield against the perception that the United States has increasingly disengaged from the region.

Biden spent his first trip to the Middle East since taking office trying to convince people otherwise.

During a previous stop in Israel, he said he was traveling to Saudi Arabia to “promote American interests in a way that I think gives us the opportunity to reaffirm what I think we have done. the mistake of walking away: our influence in the Middle East”. .”

On Saturday, he will take part in a gathering of leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – before returning to Washington. Leaders of Middle Eastern neighbors Egypt, Iraq and Jordan are also in attendance, and Biden’s national security adviser said Biden would make a ‘major statement’ on his vision for the Middle East. .

The Saudi visit is one of the trickiest Biden has faced on the international stage.

Any success in easing relations could pay diplomatic dividends as the president seeks to ensure stability in the region. But it also opened up Biden, already floundering in opinion polls at home, to deeper criticism that he is backtracking on his promises to put human rights at the center of foreign policy. During his presidential campaign, he vowed to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah”.

“If ever we needed a visual reminder of the continued grip of oil-rich autocrats on US foreign policy in the Middle East, we have it today,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif, tweeted. . “A punch is worth a thousand words.”

Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, said with the visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden was backsliding on human rights.

She told The Associated Press in an interview on Thursday, “It’s heartbreaking and disappointing. And Biden will lose his moral authority by putting oil and expediency above principles and values.”

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Batrawy reported from Dubai, Knickmeyer from Sacramento, Calif., and Megerian from Washington.

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