Ahead of Saudi Arabia trip, President Biden stops short of committing to raising Jamal Khashoggi murder

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — A crucial meeting to restore one of the world’s most important diplomatic ties started with a fist bump on Friday when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomed US President Joe Biden to a royal palace.

The first encounter, captured by Saudi television, occurred as Biden stepped out of his presidential limousine in Jeddah to reinvigorate their countries’ long-standing partnership.

There was little evidence of warmth between the leaders, and none of the back pats or smiles that Biden or the crown prince usually show when greeting other leaders.

Biden had long refused to speak to Prince Mohammed, the heir apparent to the throne currently held by his father, King Salman. And he slammed the oil-rich kingdom for its human rights abuses, most notably the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based journalist.

But those concerns have since been overshadowed by other challenges, including rising gas prices and Iranian aggression in the Middle East. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is trying to strengthen its security ties with the United States and make investments to transform its economy into one less dependent on oil pumping.

The Saudis cautiously welcomed Biden at the Jeddah airport without the ceremony that accompanied his stay in Israel this week.

Biden was greeted by Mecca’s governor, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, Princess Reema bint Bandar, and then walked down a lavender carpet leading to the limousine that took him to the palace.

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

After that, Biden and Prince Mohammed held a broader meeting with several advisors. The two men sat facing each other, an arrangement that buffed the perception that they were mates. It’s an image the crown prince, known by his initials MBS, was keen to cultivate as he cemented his way to the throne after sidestepping, arresting and confiscating the assets of royal rivals and critics.

So far, his rise to power has ushered in a new era for the kingdom as it works to build a domestic military and arms industry, wean itself off its reliance on oil for revenue, and build security ties to defend against Iran.

Now, the future of the region, including the possibility of closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as the ebb and flow of global oil supplies, could depend on the relationship between the 79-year-old US president and the 36-year-old Saudi king.

There had been much speculation about both the choreography and the content of how Biden, who as a presidential candidate had promised to treat the Saudis as “pariahs” because of their human rights record, would interact with Prince Mohammed.

Access for journalists was restricted. The traveling White House press corps was not present when Biden punched the crown prince, and reporters were only briefly admitted to their meeting. Almost none of her remarks could be heard. Biden didn’t respond when reporters asked if he still considered Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” nor did Prince Mohammed respond to a shouted question about whether he would apologize to Khashoggi’s family.

Last year, Biden’s government authorized the release of a US Secret Service finding that found the Crown Prince likely authorized Khashoggi’s assassination. The release of the report caused a rupture in US-Saudi Arabia relations.

Before arriving in Saudi Arabia, Biden declined to say if he would raise the issue directly with Prince Mohammed, and he did not do so within earshot of reporters on Friday.

“My views on Khashoggi were absolutely clear. And I’ve never been quiet about talking about human rights,” Biden said earlier this week. “However, the reason I am going to Saudi Arabia is much broader. It’s about promoting US interests — promoting US interests in a way that I think gives us an opportunity to reaffirm what I think we made a mistake in deviating from are: our influence in the Middle East.”

Biden arrived in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on the third day of a four-day pan across the Middle East. He spent the first two days meeting Israeli officials and traveled to the West Bank on Friday to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and others before flying to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis took a step toward normalizing ties with Israel ahead of Biden’s visit, announcing early Friday that they would open their airspace to “all airlines,” signaling the end of their tough restrictions on Israeli flights flying over their territory .

Biden hailed the decision as “an important step in building a more integrated and stable Middle East region,” adding that the decision “can help create momentum for Israel’s further integration into the region, including with Saudi Arabia, to build”.

Biden will also attend a Saturday meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council leaders — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — before returning to Washington. The heads of state and government of the Middle East neighbors Egypt, Iraq and Jordan will also take part.

The Saudi visit is one of the most sensitive Biden has faced on the international scene. Any kind of respectful greeting that Biden can pull off and the Saudi crown prince can look back on could help both sides soothe ties.

But it could also expose Biden, already floundering at home in the polls, to deeper criticism that he is backing down on his pledges to put human rights at the heart of foreign policy.

Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz said Biden was backing down on human rights by visiting Saudi Arabia.

“It’s actually a very big backtrack,” Cengiz said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday. “It’s heartbreaking and disappointing. And Biden will lose his moral authority if he puts oil and expediency ahead of principles and values.”

Biden’s criticism of the Saudis as a candidate has been tempered in recent months as Russia’s war in Ukraine has exacerbated already global oil and gas supply shortages. Elevated gasoline prices have pushed inflation in the United States to its highest level in four decades.

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

“Biden and his team will come and keep their eyes on the US election and improve the Democrats’ situation by reaching an agreement to increase oil production,” Hamad tweeted, saying that “the Saudi leadership doesn’t matter.”

Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former US State Department official, said Biden looks forward to visiting Saudi Arabia “in the same way I would look forward to root canal surgery.”

Miller contrasted Biden with his predecessor, President Donald Trump, who was visiting Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip. That trip was highlighted by a mysterious photo op where leaders gathered around a glowing orb and Trump briefly joined in a ceremonial sword dance.

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

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Knickmeyer reported from Sacramento, California and Megerian from Washington. Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed from Dubai.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Alley Einstein

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