US President Joe Biden has brought a two-handed diplomacy to Saudi Arabia, on the one hand accusing Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of being a ruthless killer – and on the other begging him to boost oil production.
Mr Biden said he held the prince responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, shortly after exchanging a fist bump welcome with the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
Mr Biden said they also discussed energy and that he expected to see “further steps” from Saudi Arabia, a major oil producer, in coming weeks.
On a trip to reset relations with a country he had called a pariah after Khashoggi’s killing in 2018, Mr Biden said the crown prince, known as MbS, denied involvement in the murder and said he had held those responsible to account.
“With respect to the murder of Khashoggi, I raised it at the top of the meeting, making it clear what I thought of it at the time and what I think about it now,” Mr Biden said.
“I was straightforward and direct in discussing it. I made my view crystal clear. 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.”
US intelligence says the crown prince approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi, an establishment insider-turned-critic, who was murdered and dismembered by Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
‘Not personally responsible’
“He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it,” Mr Biden said of the crown prince’s response during their meeting.
“I indicated that I thought he was.”
As a presidential candidate, Mr Biden had said Saudi Arabia should be made an outcast on the world stage because of the murder. He stood by that comment on Friday.
Mr Biden’s interaction with the crown prince drew immediate criticism at home – including from The Washington Post and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
US reporters shouted questions about Khashoggi at the crown prince at the beginning of the meeting.
“Will you apologise to his family?” one called out. MbS, with the Saudi energy minister seated beside him, did not respond.
Energy and security interests prompted Mr Biden and his aides to decide not to isolate the Gulf oil giant, which has been strengthening ties with Russia and China.
Mr Biden wants to “recalibrate” Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia and not rupture them, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
Jeddah hosted a larger gathering of Arab leaders on Saturday, when Mr Biden discussed energy security amid hopes of more action by OPEC+ to boost output.
“We had a good discussion on ensuring global energy security and adequate oil supplies to support global economic growth,” he said.
Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel Al-Jubeir said no agreement had been reached, and Saudi and OPEC countries would make a decision based on the market, not “hysteria” or “politics”.
The OPEC+ group, which includes Russia, next meets on August 3.
All eyes on Iran
Mr Biden, who flew to Jeddah after visiting Israel, also touted a pair of Saudi moves widely seen as signs of a gradual thaw in its relations with Israel.
Riyadh agreed to allow more overflights of its territory from Israel, which Mr Biden said he hoped would lead to broader normalisation of relations.
He also announced a US deal brokered by Donald Trump between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia under which a small international peacekeeping contingent will leave the strategic Red Sea island of Tiran.
Cairo ceded control of Tiran to Riyadh in 2017. Israeli approval was required for any change in the security arrangement there, and lengthy and complex negotiations were required to seal the deal because of the lack of Israeli-Saudi diplomatic relations.
The US and Saudi Arabia agreed on the importance of stopping Iran from “acquiring a nuclear weapon” during the Biden visit, a joint statement carried by the Saudi state news agency said.
The two countries also stressed the need to prevent Iran from interfering in internal affairs of countries, supporting terrorism through its affiliated armed groups, and destabilising the region.