WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden aimed to tout policy progress Friday after several highly criticized meetings with Saudi Arabia’s royalty, but the dominion’s human rights abuses overshadowed all other topics.
Biden said his team achieved “significant business” in Jeddah following months of what he described as quiet diplomacy. Among the many topics of progress, Saudi Arabia and Israel — which Biden also visited this week — did take tangible steps toward normalizing relations, in accordance with the president.
Visiting oil-rich Saudi Arabia as high gas prices contribute to low approval rankings at home, Biden also said he discussed oil supply throughout the meetings. He also pointed to 5G, climate policy and countering China’s influence within the region as topics of debate.
But Biden’s address from Saudi Arabia got here hours after the president fist-bumped Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who likely ordered the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His decision to interact with the crown prince solid a shadow over the policy progress Biden aimed to showcase.
U.S. intelligence concluded that the crown prince, generally known as MBS, ordered Khashoggi’s murder. He has previously denied having a task within the dismemberment of the journalist.
Biden said that he raised human rights and the murder of Khashoggi at the beginning of his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed.
“For an American president to be silent on the problem of human rights is inconsistent with who we’re and who I’m,” Biden told reporters in Jeddah. The president added that the crown prince told him that he didn’t have anything to do with the disappearance and murder of Khashoggi.
Biden added that he didn’t regret saying in 2019 as a presidential candidate that he desired to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” after Khashoggi’s murder.
“What happened to Khashoggi was outrageous,” Biden said.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fist bumps U.S. President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Al Salman Palace, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022.
Bandar Algaloud | Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court | via Reuters
Biden last week published an op-ed in The Washington Post — where Khashoggi worked as a columnist — justifying his visit to Saudi Arabia.
“From the beginning, my aim was to reorient — but not rupture — relations with a rustic that is been a strategic partner for 80 years,” Biden wrote in that article, which mentions the slain journalist by name once.
“I do know that there are numerous who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia,” the president wrote. “My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are at all times on the agenda once I travel abroad, as they shall be during this trip, just as they shall be in Israel and the West Bank.”
In a press release Friday, Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan said Biden’s fist bump “projected a level of intimacy and luxury that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately searching for.”
Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz retweeted a photograph of Biden fist-bumping the prince, with a message from Khashoggi’s Twitter account: “Hey @POTUS. Is that this the accountability you promised for my murder. This blood of MBS’s next victim is in your hands.”
When asked to reply to Khashoggi’s fiancee’s tweet, Biden said that he was sorry she felt that way.
“I’m sorry she feels that way. I used to be straightforward back then. I used to be straightforward today,” Biden said.
Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich monarchy is a serious strategic partner for the U.S. and the highest buyer of U.S.-made arms. That role has safeguarded the dominion from retaliatory sanctions over Khashoggi’s death and the Saudi-led war in Yemen.