U.S. President Joe Biden landed Friday in Saudi Arabia and met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), sealing 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 U.S. leader to fly directly from the Jewish state to an Arab nation that does not recognize it.
In 2017, his predecessor, Donald Trump, made the journey in reverse.
Biden, wearing sunglasses, emerged from Air Force One to walk down a purple carpet and be greeted by Mecca province 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 MBS sat across from one another at a large conference table for a “working session,” flanked by top officials.
After taking office last year, Biden’s administration released U.S. intelligence findings that MBS “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. But it marred the crown prince’s reputation as a potential reformer.
Biden now appears ready to reengage with a country that has been a key strategic ally of the United States for decades, a major supplier of oil and a buyer of U.S. 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 the November midterm elections.
After the meeting, Biden told reporters at a news conference that he raised the murder of Khashoggi at the beginning of his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince MBS.
“I said, very straightforwardly, for an American president to be silent on an issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am,” Biden said. “I’ll always stand up for our values.”
U.S. intelligence believes that the crown prince likely approved the killing of Khashoggi, a U.S.-based writer, four years ago. His murder has loomed over Biden’s efforts to reset relations with Saudi Arabia.
Biden also announced that U.S. peacekeepers would leave the Red Sea island of Tiran by the end of the year, part of an agreement reached during what he called “a good series of meetings” in Jeddah.
U.S. officials are also touting efforts to promote integration between Israel and Arab nations.
Saudi Arabia has refused to join the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords under which Israel normalized ties with the kingdom’s neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in 2020.
Riyadh has repeatedly said it would stick to the decades-old Arab League position of not establishing official ties with Israel until the conflict with Palestine is resolved.
But it is showing signs of greater openness toward Israel, and announced Friday it was lifting overflight restrictions on aircraft traveling to and from Israel, a move Biden hailed as “historic.”
Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid hailed the decision as “only the first step” toward bolstering ties with Arab nations.
On Saturday, Biden is due to meet Arab leaders from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq to discuss volatile oil prices and Washington’s role in the region.
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.
With Palestine banned by Israel from political activity in Jerusalem, the U.S. president traveled 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 decadesold 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 U.S. Consulate in Palestine in East Jerusalem – which Trump closed – reopen.
With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations moribund since 2014, the U.S. delegation has been focusing on economic measures.
Biden made clear on Thursday he had no plans to reverse the controversial move by Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which infuriated the Palestinians as East Jerusalem is seen to be the seat of a future Palestine.
‘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 by Israeli forces in May while covering an Israeli 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 sports activity, he should have respected the family and given them 10 minutes to listen to them,” said Samer Sinijlawi, chairperson of a Palestinian nonprofit, the Jerusalem Development Fund, after Biden on Thursday attended a ceremony for Jewish athletes.
Speaking alongside Abbas, Biden said the U.S. “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.