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President Biden arrives in Saudi Arabia, reversing promise to make it an international outcast

By Noah Bierman </p><p>and Tracy Wilkinson Los Angeles Times

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – President Joe Biden arrived at the Royal Palace here on Friday to meet with the leaders of the oil-rich country he once vowed to make a “pariah” over its human rights abuses as the White House is scrambling to mitigate record inflation and high gas prices hammering Americans in an election year.

Even as he ventured to this sandy dessert resort along the Red Sea in search of greater oil production, Biden sought to downplay the significance of his visit – limiting media access to his meetings and equivocating over whether he would shake hands with Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Concerned about the political implications of meeting with Mohammed, accused by American intelligence officials of ordering the slaying of a U.S.-based journalist, the White House cited as the rationale for visiting Saudi Arabia a conference with other Middle Eastern leaders.

Biden’s diplomatic and political dance has been a striking contrast with how his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, handled the U.S. relationship with the Saudi regime. Trump made a show of his good relationship with the Saudi royals, arguing that arms sales to the country justified not pressing the kingdom over human rights matters. Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first foreign travel destination, accepting a thick gold medal from the autocratic king, swaying along to a sword dance and touching a giant glowing orb as part of a lavish extravaganza that became emblematic of his fealty to the kingdom.

“We’re focused on the meetings, not the greetings,” insisted a senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters traveling with the president on the condition of anonymity.

But the attempts to avoid photographs of a handshake between Mohammed and Biden have only brought more attention to the atmospherics of a meeting that was destined to be awkward since it was announced last month.

Biden’s visit is seen as a win for Saudi Arabia and Mohammed, whom Biden sharply criticized during his 2020 campaign over the brutal killing in 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen who worked as a journalist in the U.S.

Faced with the bleak reality of rising gas prices – Saudi Arabia is a major global oil producer – Biden has toned down that criticism over the slaying since taking office. During a press conference on Thursday in Israel, Biden would not commit to confronting the Saudis over Khashoggi’s murder. Khashoggi, a dissident, was slain in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded the slaying was ordered by Mohammed.

“I always bring up human rights, but my position on Khashoggi has been so clear, if anyone doesn’t understand it in Saudi Arabia – or anywhere else – they haven’t been around,” Biden said.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, insisted to reporters on Air Force One Friday that “the fundamental issues of human rights are going to be on the agenda.” He said that Biden needs to claim leadership in the Middle East to stave off China and Russia’s attempts at filling a void.

It is not just Khashoggi’s killing that has caused consternation. Human rights organizations have a long list of concerns about how Saudi Arabia treats women, political dissent and its neighbors. Saudi rules, for example, bar women from significant aspects of society, and the Saudi government has been sharply criticized for bombings that targeted civilians in Yemen.

Martin Indyk, a former special U.S. envoy to the Middle East and ambassador to Israel who was in Riyadh last week, said there was a “sense of arrogance” among Saudi officials he met with because “now the president’s going to have to eat crow and kiss the ring,” validating the kingdom’s strategic importance.

American strategic interests here go beyond oil, requiring Biden to temper his desire to marginalize the kingdom, even if this visit is not likely to produce many tangible results.

“Both sides should understand that they need to find a way to work with each other and set the direction in the future for a better relationship,” he said.

Biden has been eager to use the trip to build on growing alliances with Israel and its former Arab adversaries. Those closer ties have been spurred spurred by mutual fear of Iran, which is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon. Before Biden left Jerusalem for Jeddah on Friday, he announced that Saudi Arabia had agreed to open its civilian airspace to Israel for the first time, a step toward what he hopes will be formal relations between the two countries. Such a move would follow a recent wave of countries that have given formal recognition to Israel, beginning in 2020 with the United Arab Emirates.

White House officials on Air Force One noted that the president was making history in traveling to Jeddah from Tel Aviv, though Saudi’s new rules stop short of allowing direct commercial planes from Israel to land on its soil.

“This is the first public step that Saudi Arabia has taken, vis-a-vis Israel,” Sullivan said. “And in that regard, it is historic.”

Biden will hold additional talks here Saturday with Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and six Gulf nations. Sullivan said he does not expect any action on increasing oil production to come during the meetings but is hoping the broader group of oil-producing nations known as “OPEC Plus” will make announcements in the coming weeks.

“This is a trip of tradeoffs,” said Marti Flacks, former NSC and State Department official who now heads the human rights program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “and I think that we have to be clear and transparent about the calculations that the U.S. administration is making.”

Though the trip has drawn controversy, it is not expected to yield many concrete achievements. It has been more about sending signals and defining Biden’s Middle East policy, according to analysts.

Before Biden arrived in Jeddah, he capped off his three days in Israel with a trip to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where he visited a church, a hospital and held a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Biden pledged more than $316 million in new aid and reiterated support for a Palestinian state but cast doubt on a near-term peace process.

“The Palestinians as well as Israeli Palestinian people. deserve a state of their own – independent, sovereign viable and contiguous,” he said.

“Even if the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on trying to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis, both sides, closer together,” he added.

The aid and the pro-statehood statements provided a contrast with Trump, who cut assistance and moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That move was considered a provocation because the city has significance to both Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians say Jerusalem would be the capital of any Palestinian state.

Palestinians, who were optimistic that Biden would be a better partner than Trump, have grown increasingly vexed with the U.S. government’s approach to the region.