U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday he would not avoid talking about human rights when he visits Saudi Arabia on the second leg of his Middle East trip and stressed his position on the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi was “absolutely” clear.
Biden heads to the kingdom on Friday where he will seek to boost the flow of oil and reset the relationship with a key Arab country without appearing to embrace a crown prince accused of human rights abuses.
The trip represents a delicate balancing act for a president who less than two years ago promised to make Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, a “pariah” on the international stage.
That promise was prompted by the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Khashoggi, a Saudi insider-turned-critic, in a plot that U.S. intelligence says was directly approved by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who denies involvement.
However, Biden and his senior aides ultimately decided that the United States’ security and energy relationship with Riyadh was too important to isolate the Sunni Muslim powerhouse. Biden has said his aim was to reorient — but not rupture — a strategic relationship that has weathered many storms over 80 years.
“I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” Biden told a news conference following a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem. “The reason I am going to Saudi Arabia though, is much broader, it’s to promote U.S. interests,” he said.
“And so there are so many issues at stake, I want to make clear that we can continue to lead in the region and not create a vacuum, a vacuum that is filled by China and/or Russia.”
Biden’s visit, during which he is expected to meet King Salman as well as Crown Prince Mohammed ahead of a summit with Arab leaders on Saturday, has faced opposition in the United States given Khashoggi’s killing by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
Biden said his views on the killing were “absolutely, positively clear.”
“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 for a while.”
In an apparent shift in policy that could enable Biden to avoid being photographed shaking hands with Prince Mohammed, White House officials said the president would seek to reduce direct contact, such as shaking hands, during his trip.
Still Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s powerful de facto ruler, has emerged unbowed from the international outrage over Kashoggi’s killing as Western leaders who once tried to isolate him now seek his support.
Biden has sought to emphasize the summit with a broader set of Arab leaders in Jeddah and downplay the role oil will play in the Saudi talks, but high crude prices accelerated by the Ukraine crisis are one of the main reasons he decided to come.
White House officials say the talks aim to help bring Israel and Saudi Arabia closer to a diplomatic relationship, support a truce in Yemen and convince Riyadh of Washington’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program.
Biden will be the first American president to fly from Israel directly to Jeddah, Saudi’s second-largest city, a move the White House says represents a “small symbol” of the warming ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which share concerns about Iran’s missile programme and network of regional proxies.
Riyadh, which has chafed at Washington’s restrictions on arms sales to the kingdom and indirect U.S.-Iran talks to revive the 2015 nuclear pact without Gulf participation, had given its tacit blessing to U.S.-brokered deals that saw regional allies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain forge ties with Israel.
Saudi Arabia also faces a balancing act as it seeks to improve ties with main security guarantor the United States while shoring up an oil alliance with Russia it has worked to secure for decades. Gulf states, which also have strong trade ties with China, have refused to take sides in the Ukraine war.
“The (Gulf) region does not want a new cold war or hot war…Countries of the region want an approach that builds balanced relations with all sides and through which they protect their interests,” Saudi columnist Rami Al Ali wrote in Okaz newspaper at the start of Biden’s visit to the region.