By AAMER MADHANI, AYA BATRAWY, ELLEN KNICKMEYER and CHRIS MEGERIAN
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — President Joe Biden said he raised the killing of Jamal Khashoggi during his Friday meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, dismissing the idea that he ignored rights abuses of the kingdom’s man as he attempted to reset a critical diplomatic relationship.
“I said, very simply, that an American president being silent on a human rights issue is inconsistent with who we are and who I am,” Biden said. “I will always stand up for our values.”
US intelligence thinks the crown prince likely approved of killing US-based writer Khashoggi four years ago.
Biden said Prince Mohammed claimed he was “not personally responsible” for the death. “I indicated that I thought he was,” replied the president.
It was the first meeting between the two leaders, beginning with a fist bump outside the royal palace in Jeddah, in a relationship that could reshape security partnerships in the Middle East and the flow of oil around the world.
For now, it seemed like they were taking steps forward together. Biden has announced that the American peacekeepers will leave the island of Tiran in the Red Sea by the end of the year.
Saudi Arabia hopes to develop tourist attractions there, as part of the kingdom’s efforts to develop its economy beyond oil. 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 the ceasefire in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia was fighting Iran-backed militants, resulting in a humanitarian crisis.
The president’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 meeting sparked outrage from critics who believed Biden was backing away from his human rights promises, particularly regarding the killing of Khashoggi, a US-based journalist who wrote for the Washington Post.
“The fist bump between President Biden and Mohammad bin Salman was worse than a handshake – it was shameful,” said a statement from Fred Ryan, the Post’s editor. “He projected a level of privacy and comfort that offers MBS the unwarranted redemption he so desperately seeks.”
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. 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.
The president then spoke with King Salman, the 86-year-old monarch who has suffered from poor health, including two hospitalizations this year. Journalists were not allowed to enter the room, but the Saudis posted a video of Biden shaking hands with the king as the crown prince looks 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 considers Saudi Arabia an outcast, nor did Prince Mohammed respond to a shouted question if he would apologize to the family. by Khashoggi.
“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 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 Thursday, “It’s heartbreaking and disappointing. And Biden will lose his moral authority by putting oil and opportunism on principles and values.
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.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, Knickmeyer from Sacramento, Calif., and Megerian from Washington.