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Biden defends Saudi Arabia trip, citing prospects for Israel normalisation

Campaigners have been highly critical of the president's visit after his previous condemnation of Jamal Khashoggi killing
US President Joe Biden speaks during a visit to the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on 8 July 2022, to mark the 75th anniversary of the agency's founding (AFP)

US President Joe Biden has defended his decision to visit Saudi Arabia, made despite previous vocal criticism of the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, citing the potential for the kingdom's normalisation with Israel.

Biden is set to visit the kingdom next week during a tour of the region, also in part to push for increased oil production in an attempt to control  spiralling fuel costs and inflation in the US.

Writing in the Washington Post, the newspaper Khashoggi wrote for before he was murdered in the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul in 2018, Biden claimed that his administration had reversed the "blank-check" policy that his predecessor, Donald Trump, had taken with the kingdom.

He cited his administration's released of an intelligence report on Khashoggi's murder and his decision to impose sanctions on some of those involved in the killing.

"My administration has made clear that the United States will not tolerate extraterritorial threats and harassment against dissidents and activists by any government," he wrote.

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However, he made no reference to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler who was named in the intelligence report as having "approved" the killing of Khashoggi, something the crown prince has long denied.

Campaigners and rights groups have condemned Biden's decision to visit Saudi Arabia after he was fiercely critical of the kingdom prior to his election as president, during which time he called for the country to be made a "pariah" state and said there was “little social redeeming value in the present government".

'Reorient' not 'rupture'

In the op-Ed, Biden said his goal now was to "reorient" but "not rupture" relations with Saudi Arabia. He pointed out that when he travelled to the country on Friday he would be the first president taking a flight from Israel to the coastal city of Jeddah, where he will take part in a conference involving regional leaders.

"That travel will also be a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalisation between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand," he wrote.

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"In Jeddah, leaders from across the region will gather, pointing to the possibility of a more stable and integrated Middle East, with the United States playing a vital leadership role."

Although Saudi Arabia does not recognise Israel, relations have been warming between the two countries in recent years.

Trump helped to negotiate the Abraham Accords in 2020 that saw the neighbouring United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreeing normalisations deals with Israel.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called on other Middle Eastern countries to build ties with Israel.

"Israel is extending its hand to all countries in the region and calls on them to build ties with us, to establish relations with us, to change history for the sake of our children," said Lapid.

The Washington Post's former global opinions editor, Karen Attiah, who recruited Khashoggi to the paper, warned in the paper last month that Biden's decision to travel to the kingdom gave the green light to governments that the killing of dissident journalists was acceptable as long as "you're a country that helps achieve American geopolitical interests".

"The assumption that peace, stability and security are separate from press freedom and other human rights in the Middle East - and are matters to be balanced against realism - is, at best, a dusty relic of unimaginative policymaking," she wrote.

"At worst, the 'peace' being advanced is the quiet that comes when Arab voices and journalists are silenced. This is not stability, it is American-enabled repression."

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