US President Joe Biden landed in Saudi Arabia on Friday and sealed a backlash from his campaign promise to make the kingdom a “pariah” over his human rights record.
Saudi state media showed images of Air Force One at the airport in the coastal city of Jeddah after a flight from Israel, making Biden the first US leader to fly directly from Israel to an Arab country it does not recognize.
In 2017, his predecessor, Donald Trump, made the trip in reverse.
While in Jeddah, Biden is expected to meet with 86-year-old Saudi King Salman before participating in a “working session” led by 36-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler.
After taking office in early 2021, the Biden administration released US intelligence findings that Prince Mohammed “approved” an operation targeting journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose horrific murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sparked global outrage.
Saudi officials deny Prince Mohammed’s involvement, saying Khashoggi’s death was the result of a “rogue” operation, but it has seriously tarnished his reputation as a potential reformer.
Biden now appears poised to rejoin a country that has been a key strategic ally of the United States for decades, a major supplier of oil and an avid buyer of weapons.
Washington wants the world’s largest crude oil exporter to open the floodgates to cut rising gasoline prices, which threaten democratic opportunities in November’s midterm elections.
US officials also praise efforts to promote integration between Israel and the Arab countries.
Saudi Arabia has refused to join the US-brokered Abraham Accords, which in 2020 forged ties between Israel and two of the kingdom’s neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The kingdom has repeatedly said it is sticking to the Arab League’s decades-old stance of not forming official ties with Israel until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.
But it is showing signs of greater openness to Israel, announcing Friday morning that it is lifting overflight restrictions on planes traveling to and from Israel, a move Biden labeled as “historic”.
Israeli interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid said the decision to lift airspace restrictions was “just the first step” as the country seeks to strengthen regional ties.
On Saturday, Biden is expected to meet with Arab leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq to discuss volatile oil prices and Washington’s role in the region.
‘Political Horizon’ in Bethlehem
Jeddah marks the final stop on Biden’s Middle East tour, following Friday’s talks with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and meetings with Israeli officials the day before.
With Palestinians banned by Israel from political activity in Jerusalem, the US president traveled to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank to meet Abbas.
Standing next to Abbas, Biden reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying there must be “a political horizon that the Palestinian people can really see.”
“I know the goal of the two states seems so distant,” he said in Bethlehem.
The Palestinian president said he was “taking steps” to improve bilateral relations and that he aimed to reopen the US consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem, which was closed by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.
With the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations on the brink of death since 2014, the US delegation is focusing on economic measures.
Biden made it clear on Thursday that he had no plans to undo Trump’s controversial move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which infuriated Palestinians who see the eastern sector as the seat of their future state.
Biden was greeted in Bethlehem with a billboard that read “Justice for Shireen,” a reference to the veteran Palestinian-American journalist who was shot dead in May while reporting an Israeli army attack on the West Bank.
Shireen Abu Akleh’s family requested a meeting with Biden during his visit, but a senior administration official told reporters the president “can’t do that,” noting that the family had been invited to Washington.
“I think if President Biden can find an hour and a half to go to a sporting activity, he should have respected the family and given them 10 minutes to listen to them,” said Samer Sinijlawi, president of a Palestinian nonprofit organization. the Jerusalem Development Fund, after Biden attended a ceremony for Jewish athletes on Thursday.
Dozens of protesters gathered in Bethlehem carrying photos of Abu Akleh and signs against Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Speaking alongside Abbas, Biden said the US will “continue to press for a full and transparent account of her death”.
Washington concluded earlier this month that she had likely been shot from an Israeli military position, but that there was no evidence of intent to kill.
(This story was not edited by DailyExpertNews staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)