Biden lands in Saudi Arabia to mend fences

Published July 16, 2022
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden fist-bumps Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah.—AFP
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden fist-bumps Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah.—AFP

• Slew of measures on mobile technology, cybersecurity announced • Biden raises Khashoggi killing with MbS • Meets Palestinian president, greeted by ‘Justice for Shireen’ posters

JEDDAH: US President Joe Biden landed on Friday in Saudi Arabia and met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, beating a retreat from his campaign pledge to turn the kingdom into a “pariah” over human rights abuses.

Saudi state media showed images of Air Force One at the airport in the coastal city of Jeddah after a flight from Israel, making Biden the first US leader to fly directly from the Jewish state to an Arab nation that does not recognise it.

Wearing sunglasses, Biden emerged from Air Force One to walk down a purple carpet and be greeted by Makkah Governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal and Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.

Later, state television Al-Ekhbariya showed Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto leader, greeting Biden with a fist bump and escorting him into Jeddah’s Al-Salam palace.

Biden met Saudi King Salman, 86, then he and Prince Mohammed sat across from one another at a large conference table for a “working session”, flanked by top officials.

Shadow of Khashoggi killing

After taking office last year, Biden’s administration released US intelligence findings that Prince Mohammed “approved” an operation targeting journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose gruesome killing in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate sparked global outrage. Saudi officials deny Prince Mohammed’s involvement and say Khashoggi’s death resulted from a “rogue” operation.

Biden now appears ready to re-engage with a country that has been a key strategic ally of the United States for decades, a major supplier of oil and an avid buyer of weapons. Washington wants the world’s largest exporter of crude to open the floodgates to bring down soaring gasoline prices, which threaten Democratic chances in November mid-term elections.

The US president said on Friday he raised the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi “at the top of the meeting” with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“What happened to Khashoggi was outrageous... I just made it clear if anything occurs like that again they will get that response and much more,” Biden said after meeting Prince Mohammed.

But the slain journalist’s fiancée said Biden had enabled the crown prince to take more victims after the US leader met and fist-bumped the man accused of ordering the journalist’s murder.

In the form of what she imagined as a tweet by Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz wrote to Biden, “Is this the accountability you promised for my murder? The blood of MBS’s next victim is on your hands.”

“The fist bump between President Biden and Mohammed bin Salman was worse than a handshake — it was shameful,” said Fred Ryan, the publisher and CEO of The Washington Post, which has demanded accountability for the death of its late contributor.

Package of announcements

US and Saudi Arabia announced various measures, ranging from the removal of peacekeepers from a strategic island off the Saudi and Egyptian coasts, to cooperation in mobile technology.

In the statement released after Biden held talks with senior Saudi officials, Washington welcomed previously announced accelerated oil production increases by OPEC+, a group which includes Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The statement said US and other peacekeepers would leave Tiran island where they have been stationed as part of accords reached in 1978 and which led to a peace deal between Israel and Egypt.

Other announcements also covered an agreement on cooperation on 5G and 6G mobile technology and on cybersecurity.

Meeting with Palestinian president

Jeddah marks the final stop on Biden’s Middle East tour, following talks on Friday with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and meetings with Israeli officials a day earlier. Biden promised not to give up efforts to end the decades-long Israeli Palestinian conflict, though he offered no new proposals to restart the stalled political dialogue between the two sides.

As he wrapped up the first leg of a Middle Eastern trip before departing for Saudi Arabia, Biden visited a hospital in East Jerusalem and pledged a multi-year $100 million package of financial and technical help.

As Palestinians are banned by Israel from political activity in Jerusalem, the US president travelled to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank to meet Abbas.

Standing alongside him, Biden reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There “must be a political horizon that the Palestinian people can actually see”, Biden said. “I know that the goal of the two states seems so far away,” Biden added.

Abbas said he was “taking steps” to improve relations with Washington and aimed to see the US consulate to Palestinians in Jerusalem — which Trump closed — reopen.

With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations moribund since 2014, the US delegation has been focusing on economic measures.

Biden made clear on Thursday he had no plans to reverse the controversial move by Trump to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which infuriated Palestinians who see its eastern sector as the seat of their future state.

‘Justice for Shireen’

Biden was greeted in Bethlehem with a billboard reading “Justice for Shireen”, referring to Shireen Abu Akleh, the veteran Palestinian-American journalist shot dead in May while covering an Israeli army raid in the West Bank.

The family requested to meet Biden during his visit, but his administration has instead invited them to Washington.

“I think if President Biden (can) find an hour and a half to go and attend a sport activity, he should have respected the family and given them 10 minutes to listen to them,” said Samer Sinijlawi, chairman of a Palestinian nonprofit, the Jerusalem Development Fund, after Biden on Thursday attended a ceremony for Jewish athletes.

Speaking alongside Abbas, Biden said the US “will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting” of Abu Akleh’s death.

Washington earlier this month concluded she was likely shot from an Israeli military position, but that there was no evidence of intent to kill.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2022

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