Biden to meet Saudi king, prince MBS after human rights rift


JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — President Joe Biden held a carefully choreographed meeting on Friday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man he once shunned for his human rights abuses, as the two leaders were looking to reset one of the most important in the world. diplomatic relations.

The encounter, which began with a fist bump as Biden stepped out of his presidential limo, could reshape security partnerships in the Middle East and the flow of oil around the world.

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

Biden seemed to approach it as a necessary if somewhat unpleasant step to improve relations with the world’s top oil exporter at a time of rising gas prices and concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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 the White House said it is planning “further actions” over the coming weeks that “will help stabilize markets significantly.”

The current OPEC+ deal expires in September, opening the door for potentially higher production thereafter.

Rising gas prices, which have been compounded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are one of the factors that prompted Biden to reassess his approach to Saudi Arabia.

The US president had long refused to speak to Prince Mohammed, the heir apparent to the throne currently held by his father, King Salman. And he harshly criticized the oil-rich kingdom for its human rights abuses, in particular the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based journalist.

But those concerns have been overshadowed by other challenges, including Iranian aggression in the Middle East and wavering efforts to use diplomacy to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

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.

The Saudis gave Biden a low-key welcome at Jeddah airport, without any of the ceremony that accompanied his stop earlier this week in Israel.

Biden was greeted by Makkah Governor Prince Khalid bin Faisal and Saudi Ambassador to the United States Princess Reema bint Bandar, then walked on a lavender carpet that led to the limo that took him to the palace.

The president spoke with King Salman, the 86-year-old monarch who has suffered from poor health, including two hospitalizations this year. Journalists were not allowed into the room, but the Saudis released a video of Biden shaking hands with the king as the crown prince looked on.

Afterwards, Biden and Prince Mohammed held a larger meeting with several 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, known by his initials MBS, has been quick to promote as he cements his path to the throne after sidelining, detaining and seizing the assets of royal rivals and reviews.

There had been much speculation about the choreography and substance of how Biden, who had vowed as a presidential candidate to treat Saudi Arabia as a ‘pariah’ for its human rights record man, would interact with Prince Mohammed.

Access for journalists was limited. The White House roving press corps was not present when Biden’s fist slammed into the crown prince, and reporters were only briefly allowed into their meeting. Almost none of their remarks could be heard. Biden didn’t respond when asked by reporters if he still sees Saudi Arabia as an outcast, nor did Prince Mohammed answer a shouted question if he would apologize to the family. by Khashoggi.

Last year, the Biden administration approved the release of a US intelligence finding that determined the crown prince likely approved of Khashoggi’s killing four years ago. The release of the report caused a rift in US-Saudi relations.

Before arriving in Saudi Arabia, Biden did not say whether he would raise the issue directly with Prince Mohammed, nor did he do so within earshot of reporters on Friday.

“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear. And I’ve never been silent when speaking about human rights,” Biden said earlier this week. “The reason I go to Saudi Arabia, however, is much broader. It’s to promote American interests – to promote American interests in a way that I think gives us the opportunity to reaffirm what I think we made the mistake of walking away from: 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 could also open Biden, already floundering in the polls at home, to deeper criticism that he is backtracking on his promises to put human rights at the center of foreign policy.

“If ever we needed a visual reminder of the oil-rich autocrats’ continued stranglehold on American 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.

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

Saudi political analyst Turki al Hamad said he was not optimistic about the prospects of Biden’s trip.

“Biden and his team will come take a look at the US election and make things better for Democrats by reaching a deal on increasing oil production,” Hamad tweeted, saying “it doesn’t matter.” importance to the Saudi leadership”.

Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former US State Department official, said Biden was looking forward to visiting Saudi Arabia “like I would look forward to a canal operation.”

Miller pitted Biden against his predecessor, Donald Trump, who visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip. That visit was highlighted by the leaders gathered around a glowing orb and Trump briefly joining in a ceremonial sword dance.

With Biden and Prince Mohammed, “there won’t be a lot of sword dancing or smiling photo ops or warm hugs,” Miller said.

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

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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