President Biden meets with Middle East leaders in Saudi Arabia


JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Concluding a four-day trip to the Middle East, President Biden on Saturday laid out his vision for the future of the volatile region, a framework he hopes will reinforce American values ​​and investment in that part of the world — and blunts influence of Russia and China.

The day of meetings with leaders from Iraq, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other regional powers was in part an attempt to change the narrative surrounding Biden’s interactions with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, was dominated, which was criticized for human rights violations.

“The United States has clear eyes on the challenges in the Middle East and where we have the greatest capacity to contribute to positive outcomes,” he said during his closing remarks to a coalition of leaders from the Gulf and some neighbors. “We will not go away and let China, Russia or Iran fill the vacuum.”

Biden says he confronted Saudis directly on Khashoggi

In meetings lasting more than four hours, Biden attempted to cover many issues: extending the Yemeni ceasefire, increasing regional food security, addressing the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on energy markets, implementing stronger human rights protections in the Ukraine region, and the threat of a feared Iran, which is striving for nuclear weapons.

To that end, Biden announced $1 billion in food security assistance in the Middle East and North Africa, regions facing acute hunger in part because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Advisors said he stressed to his counterparts that he hoped their countries would be partners for decades and focused on diplomacy and deterrence to avoid future conflict, noting that he was the first US president to Visited the Middle East since September 11 without the participation of troops have been a major ground war in the region.

As gas prices have soared in recent months, Biden has also faced immense domestic pressure to slash prices at the pump — and aides hoped the president’s trip would prompt Saudi leaders to ramp up production and reduce oil costs.

However, there were no such announcements during the trip, although Biden said on Friday that “based on our discussions today, I expect that we will see further moves in the coming weeks.”

It is crucial for the government to get the diverse group of Middle East leaders to join its blueprint. If the United States doesn’t try to influence, Biden and his associates have said repeatedly, then China and Russia will step in — and shape the region’s future.

“The bottom line is this: This trip is about re-positioning America in this region for the future,” Biden said in a speech late Friday.

Adding to that, Biden’s journey comes as he’s limping at home. His approval ratings have plummeted, his domestic political agenda remains hampered, and members of his own party have questioned whether he should even seek a second term. The fighting at home also raises questions about his ability to deliver on promises made in the region.

For weeks, Biden has unsuccessfully insisted that Saturday’s sessions should not be overshadowed by his meeting with Mohammed, the man accused of giving the green light to the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Still, the trip to Saudi Arabia so far has been marked by the symbolic chess game and literal fist punch between the two front runners. US intelligence officials say Mohammed orchestrated Khashoggi’s assassination and Biden had said Saudi Arabia’s government should be a pariah. But Mohammed leads an oil-rich country that the government sees as crucial to stabilizing the region and driving down gas prices, so Biden reluctantly agreed to meet with him.

Biden says he confronted Saudis directly on Khashoggi

In all, he spent three hours with the crown prince, attending a bilateral meeting and shaking hands with a number of Saudi officials. At the end of the evening, Biden emphasized that despite the obvious show of compassion, he took a hard line on human rights. Saudi officials later described an exchange that was much less confrontational than the president’s description.

The fist bump, which was captured by Saudi state media and quickly circulated around the world, became a powerful symbol and lightning rod for Biden. The president, who feared the one-on-one call, was harshly criticized for lending legitimacy to the Saudi government given its long history of violating human rights.

Meeting with reporters Friday night, Adel al-Jubeir, a Saudi diplomat and former foreign minister, said the crown prince had assured Biden that Saudi Arabia was conducting its own investigation into Khashoggi’s killing and the perpetrators had been arrested.

“We had an investigation. People were brought to justice. They were convicted and appealed. The decision went to the Supreme Court and was upheld. And we have people paying the price in prison. Every civilized country does that,” he said. “As a country, we have taken responsibility for this.”

Biden’s interactions with Mohammed on Sunday were more abridged. Before leaving for a full-coalition meeting, the leaders posed for a group photo, a tradition at multilateral meetings. Mohammed, the host of the day’s events, escorted Biden inside, and after the photo, the Crown Prince ushered Biden into the briefing room and chatted while they walked a few yards ahead of the other leaders.

But Biden’s meetings with Mohammed weren’t the only ones overshadowed by human rights concerns.

Ahead of the President’s meeting with the leader of the United Arab Emirates, the country arrested Asim Ghafoor, an American citizen who previously served as a lawyer for Khashoggi.

Ghafoor is a board member of Democracy for the Arab World Now, founded by Khashoggi, and issued a statement saying the arrest was based on “inflated” charges.

“We are outraged by the unjustified detention of our board member and extremely concerned for his health and physical safety given the well-documented record of ill-treatment in the UAE, including torture and inhumane treatment,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, chief executive of DAWN in a statement on Friday .

“We urge the Biden administration to secure the release of an arbitrarily detained American lawyer before agreeing to meet with the UAE leader (Mohammed bin Zayed) in Jeddah tomorrow,” she added.

DAWN said Ghafoor was arrested in connection with a money laundering case, while describing his case as “politically motivated”. The Abu Dhabi government media office did not immediately respond to questions about the nature of the charges against Ghafoor.

A State Department official said the United States was aware of Ghafoor’s arrest and consular officials had visited him. A senior administration official said Biden was also aware of the arrest but declined to say whether the president raised the issue at his meeting on Saturday.

But Biden invited the UAE leader to visit the United States during their meeting.

“Challenges you face today only make it that much more important that we spend time together,” Biden said. President Biden meets with Middle East leaders in Saudi Arabia

Dustin Huang

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