Biden offers historic fist bump in Saudi Arabia

President Biden arrived here at the Royal Palace on Friday to meet with leaders of the oil-rich country he once vowed to make “pariah” over its human rights abuses as the White House struggles to contain record inflation and high Gas prices curb Americans in an election year.

Even as he ventured to this sandy Red Sea desert resort in search of major oil exploration, Biden attempted to downplay the importance of his visit — he limited media access to his meetings and offered a fist punch instead of a traditional handshake upon entering the palace with Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Concerned about the political implications of meeting Mohammed, who has been accused by American intelligence officials of ordering the assassination of a US-based journalist, the White House held a conference with other Middle East leaders as justification for the visit to Saudi Arabia on.

Biden’s diplomatic and political dance was in striking contrast to how his predecessor, former President Trump, handled the US relationship with the Saudis. Trump flaunted his good relations with Saudi royals and argued that arms sales to the country justified not pressuring the kingdom on human rights issues. Choosing Saudi Arabia as his first foreign destination, Trump accepted a hefty gold medal from the autocratic king, swung along in a sword dance and touched a giant glowing orb in a lavish extravaganza that became emblematic of his allegiance to the kingdom.

“We are focused on the meetings, not the greeting,” said a senior Biden administration official, who briefed reporters traveling with the president on condition of anonymity.

But attempts to avoid photos of a handshake between Mohammed and Biden have only drawn more attention to the atmosphere of a meeting that was bound to get awkward since it was announced last month. The press pool traveling with Biden was denied access to his entry into the palace. (White House officials hinted earlier in the week that in the face of a surge in COVID-19, Biden was exercising caution to avoid shaking hands with the crown prince. But then he shook hands with other officials in Israel and on Friday’s landing in Saudi hand of Arabia.)

Biden’s visit is seen as a victory for Saudi Arabia and Mohammed, whom Biden slammed during his 2020 campaign for the brutal 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi national who worked as a journalist in the US

Faced with the grim reality of rising gas prices — Saudi Arabia is a major global oil producer — Biden has softened those criticisms of the killing since taking office. During a Thursday news conference in Israel, Biden declined to commit to confronting the Saudis over Khashoggi’s murder. Khashoggi, a dissident, was assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. US intelligence services have concluded that the killing of Mohammed was ordered.

“I always bring up human rights, but my position on Khashoggi was so clear that someone in Saudi Arabia — or anywhere else — doesn’t get it,” Biden said.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One on Friday that “the fundamental human rights issues will be on the agenda.” He said Biden must claim leadership in the Middle East to stave off attempts by China and Russia to fill a void.

It’s not just Khashoggi’s murder that has caused consternation. Human rights organizations have a long list of concerns about how Saudi Arabia treats women, political dissent and its neighbors. Saudi rules, for example, exclude women from key sectors of society, and the Saudi government has been heavily criticized for bombings targeting civilians in Yemen.

Martin Indyk, a former US special envoy to the Middle East and ambassador to Israel who was in Riyadh last week, said there was a “sense of arrogance” among the Saudi officials he met because “the president is now crowing must eat and kiss the ring”, confirming the strategic importance of the kingdom.

America’s strategic interests here go beyond oil and require Biden to rein in his desire to marginalize the kingdom, even if this visit is unlikely to yield many tangible results.

“Both sides should understand that they need to find a way to work together and set the direction for a better relationship in the future,” he said.

Biden was eager to use the trip to build on growing alliances with Israel and his former Arab opponents. These closer ties have been spurred on by mutual fears of Iran, which is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon.

Saudi Arabia, like Israel, is expected to urge Biden to abandon his hopes of re-signing a Trump-abandoned 2015 nuclear arms control deal with Iran. Biden argued in Israel that diplomacy was the only way to stop Iran’s nuclear development, even as Israelis claimed the negotiations would only buy Iran more time.

Before departing from Jerusalem for Jeddah on Friday, Biden announced that Saudi Arabia had agreed to open its civil airspace to Israel for the first time, a step toward what he hopes will be formal ties between the two countries. Such a move would follow a recent wave of countries that have officially recognized Israel, beginning in 2020 with the United Arab Emirates.

Air Force One White House officials noted that the president made history by traveling from Tel Aviv to Jeddah, even though Saudi’s new rules are on the verge of allowing direct commercial planes from Israel to land on its soil.

“This is the first public step Saudi Arabia has taken toward Israel,” Sullivan said. “And in that sense, it’s historic.”

Biden will hold further talks with Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and six Gulf countries here on Saturday. Sullivan said he doesn’t expect any action to increase oil production during the meetings, but hopes the broader group of oil-producing nations known as “OPEC Plus” will make announcements in the coming weeks.

“This is a journey of compromises,” said Marti Flacks, a former National Security Council and State Department official who now heads the human rights program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “and I think we need to be clear and transparent about the calculations.” that the U.S. government employs.”

Although the trip has sparked controversy, it is not expected to yield many tangible achievements. According to analysts, it was more about sending signals and defining Biden’s Middle East policy.

Before arriving in Jeddah, Biden capped his three days in Israel with trips to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where he visited a church and hospital and held a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Biden pledged more than $316 million in new aid and reiterated his support for a Palestinian state but doubted a peace process anytime soon.

“The Palestinians, like the Israeli Palestinian people, deserve a state of their own – independent, sovereign, viable and cohesive,” he said.

“Even though the ground is not right now to resume negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on bringing the Palestinians and Israelis on both sides closer together,” he added.

The aid and declarations of statehood contrasted with Trump, who cut aid and moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This move was seen as a provocation because the city is important to both Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians say Jerusalem is the capital of every Palestinian state.

Palestinians, who were optimistic that Biden would be a better partner than Trump, are increasingly angered by the US administration’s handling of the region.

Bierman reported from Jerusalem and Wilkinson from Washington. Biden offers historic fist bump in Saudi Arabia

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