In reboot with Saudis, Biden bolsters Israel’s security against Iran threat

In reboot with Saudis, Biden bolsters Israel's security against Iran threat

President Joe Biden met with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on Friday to bolster Israel’s security against the threat from Iran and reassert U.S. influence in the Middle East, facing a kingdom whose poor human rights record has condemned in the past.

“We are not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill,” Biden told reporters after his meeting with the Saudis. “And we’re getting results.”

Biden flew directly to Jeddah from Tel Aviv, hours after the kingdom announced the opening of its airspace, effectively ending the country’s ban on flights to and from Israel. Riyadh’s gesture was part of a broader warming in relations between Israel and the Arab world as they align against Tehran.

“That’s a big problem. A big problem,” Biden said. “Not just symbolically but also substantively, it’s a big deal,” he said, adding that he hoped the move would eventually lead to a broader normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The two countries currently do not recognize each other.

President Joe Biden participates in a working session with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al Salman Royal Palace on July 15, 2022, in Jeddah.

President Joe Biden participates in a working session with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al Salman Royal Palace on July 15, 2022, in Jeddah.

Biden welcomed Saudi Arabia’s extension of a nearly four-month UN-brokered truce in Yemen, and Riyadh’s commitment to reaching a broader solution to the conflict that began in late 2014. The proxy war between a Saudi-led, Tehran-backed coalition Houthi militias have turned Yemen into a breeding ground for jihadist groups, killing more than 300,000 people.

“We discussed the security needs of Saudi Arabia to defend the kingdom, given the very real threats from Iran and Iran’s proxies,” Biden said.

Biden also announced the withdrawal of multinational peacekeepers from Tiran Island in the Red Sea, effectively returning its control to Riyadh in a deal that Washington facilitated between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. He characterized it as a landmark agreement that transforms a flashpoint “at the heart of the Middle East wars into an area of ​​peace.”

Tiran and nearby Sanafir are uninhabited but strategically located islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, which borders Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan. The islands have been a source of conflict between the countries for decades.

Peacekeeping forces, including US troops stationed in Tiran since 1978, will withdraw by the end of the year, allowing the area to be used for “tourism, development and peaceful activities,” the White House said in a statement. prepared.

Some have speculated that Israel’s agreement to transfer Tiran to the Saudis may have made it easier to open Riyadh’s airspace to Israeli planes.

“Or it may just be that it’s an excuse for something the crown prince wanted to do anyway,” Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told VOA. “Either way, it was convenient.”

Unlike King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is often referred to by his initials MBS, has shown an openness to engaging with Israel.

The two countries are also discussing establishing direct flights from Israel to Jeddah for next year’s Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage. These small steps are important in fostering a different regional environment in the Middle East, said Brian Katulis, senior fellow and vice president for policy at the Middle East Institute.

“One that goes beyond the wars, conflict resolution and peace-making phase and opens the door to a new phase, not yet fully realized: one of greater regional integration and normalization,” Katulis told VOA. .

President Joe Biden participates in a working session with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al Salman Royal Palace on July 15, 2022, in Jeddah.

President Joe Biden participates in a working session with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al Salman Royal Palace on July 15, 2022, in Jeddah.

No oil deal

Biden did not secure any announcement that could lower the price of oil, saying only that he and the Saudis had a “good discussion” on how to ensure an adequate supply of oil to support global economic growth.

“I am doing everything I can to increase supply for the United States of America, which I hope will happen,” Biden said.

His aides have said no details will be announced until next month’s meetings of OPEC+, a group of 13 members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and 10 other oil producers, including Russia.

“I don’t think you should expect a particular announcement here bilaterally, because we believe that any additional action that is taken to ensure there is enough energy to protect the health of the global economy will be done in the context of OPEC+,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser told reporters on the flight to Jeddah.

OPEC+ members are limited by production quotas agreed in April 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. An increase in production to offset price hikes caused by the war in Ukraine would require unanimous agreement from the group, including Moscow.

Biden also announced initiatives connecting Washington and Riyadh in areas including 5G technology, clean and renewable energy transition, cybersecurity and space exploration.

Human rights

At the height of Biden’s meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed and other Saudi royals, both sides ignored questions from the American press, including, “Is Saudi still a pariah?” and “Jamal Khashoggi, will you apologize to his family?”

US intelligence has concluded that the crown prince approved of the brutal murder of Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist based in the US.

President Joe Biden delivers a statement to reporters after meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Waldorf Astoria Jeddah Qasr Al Sharq hotel on July 15, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

President Joe Biden delivers a statement to reporters after meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Waldorf Astoria Jeddah Qasr Al Sharq hotel on July 15, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Biden, who during his presidential campaign said the kingdom should be treated like a pariah, told reporters he made his views on human rights and Khashoggi’s killing “very clear” to the crown prince, who in turn he claimed, according to Biden, that he “was not personally responsible for it.”

“I indicated that I thought it was,” said the president who responded.

Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia “was a slap in the face” for all those who defend human rights, said Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, in an interview with VOA.

“What President Biden is doing is suggesting that human rights are cheap and can be traded for a variety of other impacts,” he said.

The last item on Biden’s agenda in the Middle East on Saturday will be the GCC+3 Summit in Jeddah, with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. where he will present his vision of the participation of the United States in the region.

Biden and the summit leaders are expected to announce a deal to connect Iraq’s power grid to GCC grids through Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, thereby reducing Baghdad’s dependence on Iran.

VOA’s Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

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