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Biden raises Khashoggi concerns during MBS meeting

July 15, 2022

The US president has used harsh words to describe Mohammed bin Salman's (MBS) human rights record. But that was before Russia invaded Ukraine and sent oil prices soaring.

On a visit to Saudi Arabia, US President Biden bumped fists with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man he once vowed to make a pariah.
Biden did not shake hands with Mohammed bin Salman, but instead fist-bumped the Saudi crown princeImage: BANDAR ALGALOUD/REUTERS

Biden's fist bump with MBS draws anger

US President Joe Biden said the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was "at the top the meeting" when he was received by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in the country's capital, Jeddah, on Friday.

"What happened to Khashoggi was outrageous," Biden said afterwards.

"I just made it clear if anything occurs like that again they will get that response and much more."

After a rather low-key reception at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Biden was then welcomed to the Saudi royal palace by MBS with a fist bump. The moment was broadcast on Saudi television. Biden was later shown on Saudi media shaking hands with King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

The president and crown prince also touched on regional security from the Red Sea to Iran, as well as future cooperation on 5G and 6G mobile technology, during their three-hour meeting.

Tensions between Washington and Riyadh over Khashoggi

Biden arrived in Saudi Arabia after two days in Israel, seeking to "recalibrate” relations with Riyadh, one of the oldest US allies in the region

But tensions between Biden and de facto Saudi leader MBS have been high after Biden previously vowed to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" state over its human rights record, saying the country had "no redeeming social value."

After much speculation, the president confirmed after the meeting that he broached the subject of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi — a dissident Saudi journalist who lived in the US and worked for the Washington Post before he was murdered at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul in 2018.

"He basically said that he was not personally responsible. I indicated that I thought he was," Biden told reporters in Jeddah.

"I was straightforward and direct in discussing it. I made my view crystal clear."

Khashoggi's fiancee slams Biden's trip

Biden, who touts himself as a champion of human rights, last year ordered the release of US intelligence reports suggesting MBS had signed off on the murder, damaging relations between the two allies.

Khashoggi's fiancee Hatice Cengiz called Biden's decision to meet with MBS, "heartbreaking and disappointing," adding, "Biden will lose his moral authority by putting oil and expediency over principles and values." 

She also published a tweet saying that Khashoggi would tell Biden that the blood of Mohammed bin Salman's next victim was on Biden's hands.

But Biden urged looking at the bigger picture before starting his visit.

"My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear. And I have never been quiet about talking about human rights. The reason I'm going to Saudi Arabia, though, is much broader," said Biden.

Biden says he raised Khashoggi at top of Saudi meeting

Iran on the agenda

One area where the two leaders made incremental progress was regional security. In a joint statement later carried by the Saudi state news agency, the two leaders agreed on the importance of stopping Iran from "acquiring a nuclear weapon."

In 2015, Iran signed a deal with six powers to curtail its nuclear program — which it maintains is for civilian electricity generation — making it harder to develop a nuclear weapon, in exchange for eased sanctions. Former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

Tehran and Riyadh, respectively, are the leading Shiite and Sunni Muslim powers in the Middle East. The two nations severed ties in 2016 amid a slew of proxy wars from Yemen to Syria.

The statement also said Biden was committed to "Saudi Arabia’s security and territorial defense, and facilitating the Kingdom’s ability to obtain necessary capabilities to defend its people and territory against external threats."

Historic agreement in the Red Sea

The US and Saudi governments also agreed to remove peacekeepers from the Red Sea island of Tiran — a move which required Israeli approval and is a sign of normalizing relations between the countries.

"International peacekeepers, including US troops, will leave Tiran Island in the Red Sea where they've been for over 40 years," Biden announced.

Tiran Island is located between the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh and Saudi Arabia, blocking a narrow strait of water that leads to Israeli's only Red Sea port of Eilat. Israel occupied the island after Egypt blocked maritime access in 1948, leading to the Six Day War. Peacekeepers have been stationed on the island since 1981, and a year later it was returned to Egypt to fulfil the Camp David Accords.

In 2016, the Egyptian government ceded the island to Saudi Arabia, sparking outcry among some Egyptians. The Saudi government plans on developing tourism on the island.

US seeks to bolster waning influence in Middle East

Biden will attempt to reengage with Riyadh and other leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He will convene with GCC leaders as well as the leaders of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan on Saturday.

With mid-term elections approaching this fall in the US and Biden's Democrats looking to lose seats, Biden will prod MBS to increase oil production and offset rising prices in the US amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet, observers say his concerns will matter little to Saudi leadership.

Former US State Department official Aaron David Miller, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Biden's difficult sojourn will differ greatly from that of his predecessor Donald Trump, who got on swimmingly with the authoritarian MBS, saying, "there aren't going to be a lot of sword dances, smiling photo ops, or warm embraces."  

Biden to meet Saudi king, prince MBS

zc, js/dj,wd (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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