Biden ends trip with U.S.-Saudi relations on the mend but few other victories

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took a step to mend their troubled relationship with a fist bump, but the U.S. leader left the kingdom on Saturday with few big hits and doubts as to whether the visit was worth it.

Biden’s four-day trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, his first to the Middle East as president, was aimed at restoring ties with the Gulf Arab oil giant, demonstrating US commitment to the region and countering the growing influence of Iran, Russia and China.

But the thorny optics overshadowed the Saudi leg as Biden avoided appearing to kiss a crown prince implicated by US intelligence in the brutal 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a charge Saudi authorities deny.

Biden said he confronted Prince Mohammed, known as MbS, about the murder. MbS remained adamant, telling Biden that the United States had also made mistakes.

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Although Biden left the Middle East without securing an immediate promise from Saudi Arabia to increase oil production or public support for US efforts for a regional security axis that would include Israel, the trip was not a wash.

Biden’s fist bump with Prince Mohammed outside the royal palace in Jeddah will serve as the defining image of the trip, but it took months. White House officials were split over whether to reward MbS with a visit and angst over his appearance.

Ultimately, they decided that maintaining strategic ties with Saudi Arabia that had stood for 80 years was important to American interests and would help both sides move on.

Riyadh took several important steps to pave the way for the visit, including backing a UN-brokered truce in the Yemen conflict, a big win for Biden, who withdrew US support for Saudi-led offensive operations saudi. It also helped accelerate already approved increases in oil production through OPEC+.

“The summit of nine Arab leaders is a clear achievement, as is support for the truce in Yemen. But those accomplishments came at the cost of a punch,” said Bruce Riedel, foreign policy officer at Brookings. Institution.

Biden came to Saudi Arabia hoping to convince heavyweight OPEC to boost oil production, but the kingdom has held firm on its strategy that it must operate under the OPEC+ alliance, which understands Russia, and not acting unilaterally.

High gasoline prices have fueled a spike in inflation in the United States and around the world, dragging Biden’s poll numbers down as he heads into a critical legislative election in November.

However, White House officials are confident that their diplomatic efforts will help shape the conversation at the next meeting of OPEC+ members.

“All eyes are on the OPEC+ meeting on August 3. If the Saudis and the UAE want to increase production, they will do it through OPEC+. But we have to keep in mind that the situation of “demand is softening. I’m not sure these countries are convinced the market needs more crude supply,” said Ben Cahill, energy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The trip saw a slight warming in relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel after Riyadh said it would open its airspace to all air carriers, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel.

There was also a US-brokered deal between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia under which a small US-led international peacekeeping contingent would leave the strategic island of Tiran, whose control was ceded to Riyadh by Cairo in 2017.

The United States and Israel hope that these steps and the summit can help build momentum for Israel’s continued integration into the region, including with Saudi Arabia.

But the Saudi foreign minister poured cold water on any impending normalization with Israel, saying it was not a harbinger of further steps. He said Riyadh was not part of any discussion of a Gulf-Israel defense alliance to counter Iran.

On Thursday, the United States and Israel signed a joint pledge Thursday to deny nuclear weapons to Iran, a show of unity by allies long divided over diplomacy with Tehran. The statement was part of Biden’s effort to rally regional allies around US efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear pact with Iran.

Saudi Arabia and Israel were unhappy with the initial nuclear deal brokered by former President Barack Obama’s administration and celebrated when Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump quit the pact.

Now Biden is asking for patience, assuring them that the United States is ready to use force as a last resort if talks break down and Iran pursues what the West sees as a nuclear weapons development program. Tehran denies that it is looking for a nuclear weapon.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates want regional concerns about Iran’s missile program and regional proxies to be addressed.

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Paul Simao)

Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.

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