Biden says he is not meeting Saudi Arabia's crown prince; they will just be at same event
US President Joe Biden said on Friday that he will not be meeting Saudi Arabia's de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman when he's in the kingdom next month, and insisted he will only see the crown prince as part of a broader "international meeting".
Biden's first trip to the Gulf region as president has been seen by rights activists as being at odds with his promise to put human rights at the heart of US foreign policy.
During a four-day trip from 13 to 16 July, Biden is planning to visit Israel, the occupied West Bank and the kingdom. The visit will culminate with a major gathering of regional leaders in Jeddah, the Saudi port city, where Biden is expected to engage in some capacity with the crown prince.
"I'm not going to meet with MBS. I'm going to an international meeting and he's going to be part of it," Biden told reporters when asked how he will handle the topic of the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
A US resident and former columnist for Middle East Eye, Khashoggi was assassinated and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018, after going there to get paperwork for his upcoming marriage. His remains have never been found.
As a presidential candidate, Biden condemned US-Saudi Arabia relations under the Trump administration and pledged to make the kingdom a "pariah", joining much of his Democratic Party in calling for a rethinking of Washington's ties with the kingdom.
But since taking office, he has refused to impose sanctions on Mohammed bin Salman, following the release of a US intelligence report that described the Saudi crown prince's alleged involvement in Khashoggi's murder.
Amid skyrocketing oil prices and record inflation at home, Biden - who had once characterised the "battle between democracies and autocracies" as the central guiding principle of his foreign policy - has been forced into a sharp U-turn.
As Europe looks to cut its energy dependence on Russia, following the invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration has reached out to old adversaries including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to plug the US oil gap.
Keeping gas prices low has been a major priority for Biden and the Democrats, especially ahead of the pivotal midterm elections in November.
According to several media reports, Biden's trip to the region is also an attempt to forge closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk has been trying to broker economic and security agreements as the two countries work toward establishing ties.
In the run-up to the trip, US lawmakers have urged the president to ensure that Washington's ties with Riyadh advance American interests, and not the other way around.
A letter to Biden earlier this month from the heads of multiple House committees said: "Until Saudi Arabia shows signs of charting a different course, and in light of deliberations regarding a potential visit to the Kingdom during which you may have an opportunity to meet with King Salman and other regional heads of state, we encourage you to redouble your efforts to recalibrate the US-Saudi relationship."
The trip has been denounced by Saudi dissidents and activists, with several accusing Biden of "hypocrisy" and "betrayal".
"President Biden came into office promising accountability for the crown prince's reign of terror. But with one fell swoop, Biden is gambling all hope of justice for MBS's countless victims like my father," Abdullah Alaoudh, the son of jailed Islamic scholar Salman al-Awda, told Middle East Eye earlier this month.
"It was salt in the wound when Trump bragged about 'saving [MBS’s] @$$.’ But how is Biden any better if he kisses the ring of this murderer, this torturer, this war criminal and autocrat?
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