Biden vows U.S. will stay in Middle East to limit influence of Russia, Iran

Concluding his first trip to the Middle East since taking office, President Biden pledged Saturday that the US will remain engaged in the region to counter Russian and Chinese influence and combat the Iranian threat.

Biden outlined his vision for the Middle East at a meeting in this Red Sea coastal city with leaders from nine Arab countries, a day after he held bilateral talks with Saudi Arabia’s controversial leader.

“The United States has a clear eye on the challenges in the Middle East,” Biden said in a speech that capped a four-day trip to the region that included meetings with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials. “Let me be clear that the United States will remain an active, committed partner in the Middle East. … We won’t go away and leave a vacuum for China, Russia or Iran to fill [and] will seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership.”

Biden, who was due to return to Washington later on Saturday, sat with leaders of the six Persian Gulf nations, Egypt and Iraq and Jordan in a big round one Table in an ornate hotel ballroom under a crystal chandelier. Reporters were kept at a distance and not allowed to ask questions.

During Biden’s trip, his first trip to the Middle East as president, government officials have attempted to link Russia with Iran in hopes of garnering more support for the global effort to isolate the Kremlin, which maintains strong ties with countries in the Middle East Middle East maintains. Neither of these nations has joined the US and its European allies in sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier in the week, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan accused Iran of plotting to sell hundreds of weaponized drones to Russia. On Saturday, he said the government had evidence Russian officials were visiting Iranian airfields to see demonstrations of the technology.

The White House released pictures it said were taken in June showing the delegation.

“What’s happening in the Middle East, I mean Russia is effectively betting on Iran,” a government official said Saturday. The official added on condition of anonymity: “We are committed to a more integrated, stable, peaceful and prosperous Middle East region.”

Biden used the trip to highlight the gradual opening of ties between Israel and some Arab nations that had not officially recognized the country until recently. Washington is attempting to build an integrated air defense system that includes Israel and several of the Arab nations as a bulwark against Iran.

Biden also advocated increased oil production, particularly from Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest oil producers. However, even if Saudi Arabia adds a million barrels or two of crude a day, it probably won’t impact US gas prices at the pump

The most controversial part of the trip, however, was Biden’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is implicated in the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi journalist. Mohammed has also been harshly criticized by human rights defenders for suppressing dissent from women, minorities and activists.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden slammed the Saudi leadership, saying he hoped to make the country an “outcast” over the Khashoggi assassination and other human rights abuses. When he took office, Biden toned down those criticisms. Caught between his rhetoric and the need to lower oil prices, Biden sought to ease tensions with Saudi Arabia by meeting Mohammed and framing it as part of a broader conference with Arab leaders and an effort to improve security in the region .

Hoping to avoid a photo of him shaking hands with Mohammed, Biden instead gave him a first jab before their meetings on Friday.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Biden with a fist bump.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Biden with a fist after his arrival in Saudi Arabia on Friday.

(Saudi Press Agency via Associated Press)

Khashoggi’s fiancee, Human rights activists and the editor of the Washington Post slammed Biden anyway. “The fist between President Biden and Mohammed bin Salman was worse than a handshake — it was shameful,” said Fred Ryan, editor of the newspaper that employed Khashoggi.

Biden said Friday Mohammed told him he was not personally responsible for Khashoggi’s killing. The president claimed he told Mohammed he thought the prince was.

Khashoggi, a vocal critic of the Saudi royal family, was killed and his body dismembered by a Saudi hit squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. US intelligence services concluded that the squad was dispatched by the crown prince.

Biden again failed to mention Khashoggi in his public remarks on Saturday, but he appeared to allude to him at the final public meeting with other Arab leaders.

Sitting next to Mohammed, Biden dedicated a segment of his speech to the importance of tolerating dissent as a means of unlocking innovation and building accountable institutions.

“I’ve had a lot of criticism over the years,” Biden said. “This is not fun.”

“No country gets it right all the time, not even most of the time, including the United States,” he added. “But our people are our strength. Our countries, with the confidence to learn from their mistakes, grow stronger.”

Bierman reported from Jeddah and Wilkinson from Washington. Biden vows U.S. will stay in Middle East to limit influence of Russia, Iran

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