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Saudi Crown Prince hits back at US president

MBS points US double standards of highlighting Khashoggi murder but downplaying assassination of Shireen Abu Akleh: Biden tells Arab leaders Washington won t walk away from Middle East 

July 17, 2022 10:12 AM

Saudi officials indicated Saturday they were keen to move on from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, one day after US President Joe Biden raised it in his talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Tensions between the two men had been high ahead of their first meeting, especially after Biden's administration last year released an assessment by the intelligence community that Prince Mohammed "approved" the operation that led to Khashoggi's killing and dismemberment in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.

In remarks Friday night, Biden called Khashoggi's death "outrageous" and said he had warned Prince Mohammed against further attacks on dissidents, without specifying what actions he might take.

The Al-Arabiya channel quoted a Saudi official saying the pair "addressed the issue of Jamal Khashoggi quickly" and that Prince Mohammed "confirmed that what happened is regrettable and we have taken all legal measures to prevent" a recurrence.

Prince Mohammed also pointed out that "such an incident occurs anywhere in the world", highlighting "a number of mistakes" made by Washington such as torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Al-Arabiya reported.

In an interview with CNN, Adel al-Jubeir, minister of state for foreign affairs, cast doubt on the intelligence community's determination that Prince Mohammed ordered the 2018 operation, something Prince Mohammed has denied.

"We know what the intelligence community's assessment was with regard to Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction," Jubeir shot back in an exchange with Wolf Blitzer shared widely on Saudi social media.

Accusations that the Iraqi dictator had such weapons trigged the 2003 Iraq War. None were found.

'Double standards' 

Jubeir also made clear the kingdom believed the Khashoggi affair had been sufficiently dealt with, even though Khashoggi's remains have never been found.

A Saudi court in 2020 jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years over the killing. Their names were never released, and Khashoggi's fiancee branded the ruling a "farce".

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia investigated this crime. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia held those responsible for it accountable, and they are paying the price of the crime they committed as we speak," Jubeir said.

"We investigated, we punished and we put in place procedures to ensure this doesn't happen again. This is what countries do in situations like this."

Despite lingering discord over the Khashoggi affair, the meeting between Prince Mohammed and Biden "went well with a frank exchange of opinions," Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst, told AFP.

Prince Mohammed "responded to Biden, pointing out US double standards of making a huge noise about Khashoggi (a Saudi) while trying their best to downplay the assassination of Shireen Abu Akleh even though she is a US citizen," Shihabi said, referring to the Palestinian-American journalist shot dead in May while covering an Israeli army raid in the West Bank.

Undermining rights pledges

It took less than 24 hours in Saudi Arabia for US President Joe Biden to tarnish an image he has long cultivated: that of a fierce defender of human rights. 

The life of any politician is dotted with campaign pledges that ultimately backfire, and for Biden that list now includes his 2019 vow to make the desert kingdom a "pariah" over its human rights record. 

Similarly his solemn description, delivered last year on US Independence Day, of Washington's role on the global stage: "We stand as a beacon to the world."

It was difficult for many to reconcile those words with the single-most searing image from Biden's first visit to the Middle East as president: his fist-bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

US intelligence officials believe the crown prince, Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, "approved" the 2018 operation that led to the killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Taken outside a palace in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, the fist-bump image was immediately distributed by official Saudi news outlets before doing the rounds on social media.

It eventually landed on the front page of The Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a contributing columnist.

- 'Shameful' -

Prior to Biden's arrival in Jeddah, the White House took several measures to try to mitigate blowback from an encounter it knew was coming. 

Biden published a column in the Post explaining his reasons for making the trip, saying he wanted to "strengthen a strategic partnership" while insisting that "fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad". 

At the start of the tour, which took him to Jerusalem and Bethlehem before Jeddah, his communications team said Biden would limit physical contact with those he met, citing coronavirus concerns. 

Some journalists immediately speculated that the measures -- which Biden ended up not fully adhering to -- were motivated less by public health and more by fear of an awkward photo-op with Prince Mohammed, often referred to by his initials, MBS. 

In the end, the first-bump in Jeddah "was worse than a handshake -- it was shameful", the Post's CEO Fred Ryan said in a statement. 

"It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking." 

The travelling press corps wasn't present for the scene. By the time they arrived at the palace in Jeddah, the two leaders had already gone inside. 

But soon the "fist-bump" was inescapable, broadcast on a seemingly constant loop by state media and Saudi government social media accounts.

White House-accredited journalists faced further restrictions as Biden held his meetings with the Saudi leadership. 

They were only allowed in briefly for a meeting of the American and Saudi government delegations, and they were kept some distance from the negotiating table. 

Brief statements from Biden and Prince Mohammed were rendered inaudible as boom microphones were not permitted. 

- 'Autocrats are smiling' -

After his meetings with Saudi royals ended Friday evening, the White House hastily arranged for Biden to deliver brief remarks and take a few questions. 

Biden told journalists he had raised the Khashoggi case "at the top" of his meeting with Prince Mohammed, adding that he'd made clear "what I thought of it at the time and what I think of it now". 

On Saturday, Biden told leaders from nine Arab nations assembled for a summit that "the future will be won by countries that unleash the full potential of their populations... where citizens can question and criticise leaders without fear of reprisal". 

But the fist-bump had already become the tour's defining shot. 

Earlier, in Israel, Biden explained his decision to go to Saudi Arabia by appearing to allude to the political compromise it represented. 

"My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear, and I have never been quiet about talking about human rights," he told a press conference. 

But beyond human rights, Biden said the trip was intended "to promote US interests", a likely nod to the need to push for more oil production from the world's biggest crude exporter, as rising gas prices hurt his party's prospects ahead of November mid-term elections. 

Back home in the US, Biden got no sympathy from human rights activists. 

"The autocrats of the world are smiling," Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter. 

"Biden's support for human rights can be sold for a smidgen of oil."

US won't 'walk away' from Middle East

President Joe Biden assured Arab leaders the United States would remain fully engaged in the Middle East, as he wrapped up his first tour of the region since taking office.

"We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran," Biden said during a summit in Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia.

US ties to Gulf powers in particular have been roiled by multiple issues in recent years, notably Washington's push for a deal to curb Iran's suspect nuclear programme and its tepid response to attacks on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 claimed by Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

The summit, the final stop of Biden's Middle East tour, brought together the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

Biden had been looking to use the trip to discuss volatile oil prices and outline his vision for Washington's role in the region.

On Friday he met Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler who US intelligence agencies assess "approved" the 2018 operation that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

After a fist-bump with Prince Mohammed, Biden said he raised the Khashoggi case and warned against future attacks on dissidents.

Prince Mohammed, who chaired the opening of Saturday's summit, has denied any role in the death of Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate and whose remains have never been found.

Biden told the assembled Arab leaders that "the future will be won by countries that unleash the full potential of their populations... where citizens can question and criticise leaders without fear of reprisal".

- Ukraine tensions -

Air Force One took off from Jeddah at around 5:00 pm (1400 GMT) on Saturday, bringing Biden's four-day visit to a close.

Hours later a joint statement was released in which the leaders committed to "preserve regional security and stability" and deepen their defense and intelligence cooperation.

It also underscored diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and notably called for enhanced joint deterrence capabilities "against the increasing threat" posed by unmanned aerial vehicles -- a likely reference to Tehran, which on Friday unveiled ships capable of carrying armed drones.

Biden said Washington would commit $1 billion in food aid to the Middle East and North Africa amid rising food insecurity induced by the war in Ukraine.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has exposed a once unthinkable divergence between Washington and key Middle East allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the oil giants that are increasingly independent on the international stage.

The wealthy Gulf nations, which host US forces and have dependably backed Washington for decades, have notably refrained from supporting the Biden administration as it tries to choke Moscow's lifelines, from energy to diplomacy.

Analysts say the new position reveals a turning point in Gulf relations with the United States, long the region's protector against neighbour Iran.

In their joint statement, the leaders "recognized ongoing efforts of OPEC+ towards stabilizing the global oil market," and welcomed the recent announcement by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to "increase supply over the course of July and August."

- Push for oil -

Saturday brought some conciliatory gestures, with Biden inviting Emirati leader, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, to visit the White House before the year is up.

And in his summit remarks, Saudi Prince Mohammed said he hoped it would "establish a new era of joint cooperation to deepen the strategic partnership between our countries and the United States of America, to serve our common interests and enhance security and development in this vital region for the whole world."

Riyadh and Washington signed 18 agreements Friday on areas including energy, space, health and investment, including developing 5G and 6G technology, a Saudi statement said.

The two nations, in a joint statement, also voiced a "commitment to the stability of global energy markets," while acknowledging the importance of cooperation "in light of the current crisis in Ukraine and its repercussions."

Saudi Arabia agreed to link the electricity networks of the Gulf Cooperation Council to Iraq, which relies heavily on energy from Iran, "in order to provide Iraq and its people with new and diversified electricity sources," the White House said.

Washington wants Riyadh to open the oil floodgates to bring down soaring gasoline prices, which threaten Democratic chances in November mid-term elections.

But Biden on Friday tried to tamp down expectations his trip would yield immediate gains.

"I'm doing all I can to increase the supply for the United States of America," he said.

- Israeli ties -

White House officials used the trip as a bid to promote integration between Israel and Arab nations.

That process appeared to get a boost Friday when Saudi Arabia announced it was lifting restrictions on civilian air carriers, a move that allows flights to and from Israel to use its airspace for the first time.

But Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told reporters after Biden's departure that the move had nothing to do with Israel and was "not in any way a precursor to any further steps".

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