Biden confronts Saudi crown prince over Khashoggi murder, expects action on energy

The White House said Biden would hold a bilateral meeting with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz at the royal palace in Jeddah.

 U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at King Abdulaziz International Airport, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (photo credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at King Abdulaziz International Airport, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
(photo credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)

US President Joe Biden said on Friday he told Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman he held him responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi as they held talks meant to reset relations with the key Arab ally.

Biden, speaking after meetings with Saudi Arabia's top leaders, said the crown prince, known as MbS, denied involvement and said he had held those responsible to account.

Biden shared a fist bump with MbS and shook hands with King Salman after arriving in Saudi Arabia.

"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," Biden told reporters.

"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 directly approved the murder of Khashoggi, a Saudi insider-turned-critic, by Saudi agents. Biden said what happened to Khashoggi was outrageous.

"He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it," Biden said of the crown prince's response during their meeting. "I indicated that I thought he was."

Interestingly, Al-Arabiya reported that the crown prince raised the killing of American-Palestinian Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh in front of the US president. Citing senior Saudi officials, Al-Arabiya reported that MbS asked Biden on the steps America has taken since her death in Jenin.

The president said they also discussed energy and that he expected to see "further steps" from Saudi Arabia, a major oil producer, on energy in the coming weeks.

As a presidential candidate, Biden had said the kingdom should be made a "pariah" on the world stage because of the murder. He said on Friday he did not regret that comment.

Energy and security interests prompted the president and his aides to decide not to isolate the kingdom, the world's top oil exporter and regional powerhouse that has been strengthening ties with Russia and China.

But the US national security adviser dampened expectations of any immediate oil supply boost to help bring down high costs of gasoline and ease the highest US inflation in four decades.

The White House said Biden would hold a bilateral meeting with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz at the royal palace in Jeddah and then the president and his team would have a working session with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, and Saudi ministers at the palace.

Jeddah hosts a larger gathering of Arab leaders on Saturday.

 US President Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One to head over to Saudi Arabia as he completes his visit to Israel. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) US President Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One to head over to Saudi Arabia as he completes his visit to Israel. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Biden will discuss energy security with leaders of Gulf oil producers and hopes to see more action by OPEC+ to boost output, but there were unlikely to be any bilateral announcements from the talks, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters en route to Jeddah from Israel.

"We believe any further action taken to ensure that there is sufficient energy to protect the health of the global economy, it will be done in the context of OPEC+," said Sullivan. "We are hopeful that we will see additional actions by OPEC+ in coming weeks."

The OPEC+ group that includes Russia meets next on Aug. 3. 

Biden's sensitive trip will be closely watched for body language and rhetoric and will test his ability to reset relations with Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince.

US intelligence concluded that MbS directly approved the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, while the crown prince denies having a role in the killing.

Biden wants to "recalibrate" Washington's relations with Saudi Arabia and not rupture them, Sullivan stressed.

White House advisers have declined to say whether Biden will shake hands with the prince, the kingdom's de facto ruler. Biden will meet with a broader set of Arab leaders at a summit in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on Saturday.

"The president's going to meet about a dozen leaders and he'll greet them as he usually does," a senior Biden administration official said earlier.

At the start of Biden's Middle East trip, officials said he would avoid close contacts, such as shaking hands, as a precaution against COVID-19. But the president ended up engaging in hand-shaking in Israel. 

Biden said on Thursday his position on Khashoggi's murder was "absolutely" clear. Biden made his "pariah" comment less than two years ago after the journalist's killing and while campaigning for president. 

Biden said he would raise human rights in Saudi Arabia, but he did not say specifically if he would broach the Khashoggi murder with its leaders.

Saudi ambassador to the United States Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, writing in US magazine Politico, reiterated the kingdom's "abhorrence" of the killing, describing it as a gruesome atrocity, and said it cannot define US-Saudi ties.

"The world has changed and the existential dangers facing us all, including food and energy security and climate change, cannot be resolved without an effective US-Saudi alliance."

Saudi Ambassador to the US Reema bin Bandar Al Saud

She said the relationship should also not be seen in the "outdated and reductionist" oil-for-security paradigm.

"The world has changed and the existential dangers facing us all, including food and energy security and climate change, cannot be resolved without an effective US-Saudi alliance."

 

'Groundbreaking' moves

Biden will encourage peace and press for a more integrated Middle East during his trip, the administration official said. Topics include strengthening a truce in Yemen, "balance" in energy markets and technological cooperation in 5G and 6G.

Ahead of the visit, Saudi Arabia said it would open its airspace to all air carriers, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel, in what Biden described as a historic and important step towards building a more integrated and stable Middle East. 

"I will do all that I can, through direct diplomacy and leader-to-leader engagement, to keep advancing this groundbreaking process," Biden said.

He will be the first American president to fly from Israel directly to Jeddah, a step the White House says represents a “small symbol” of warming Israeli-Saudi ties. Two years ago, Riyadh gave a tacit nod for the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel.

The US-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords established a new axis in the region, where Gulf states share Israel's concerns about Iran's nuclear and missiles programs and proxy network. Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Muslim Iran have for years vied for regional influence but launched direct talks last year in an effort to contain tensions.

The Saudi ambassador said US-Saudi efforts to ensure peace and security should focus on enhancing cooperation and "reinforcing a rules-based system" to confront the "vision of chaos promoted by Iran."

During his visit to Israel, Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a joint pledge to deny Iran nuclear weapons, which the Islamic Republic denies seeking.