wrapping his first trip to the Middle East since taking officePresident Biden pledged on Saturday that the United States would remain engaged in the region to counter the influence of Russia and China and combat the threat posed by Iran.
Biden laid out his vision for the Middle East during a meeting in this Red Sea coastal city with leaders from nine Arab countries, a day after he held bilateral talks with the contentious leader of Saudi Arabia.
“The United States has a clear vision on the challenges in the Middle East,” Biden said in a speech that capped a four-day trip to the region that included meetings with israeli top Y Palestinian officials. “Let me say clearly that the United States will remain an active and engaged partner in the Middle East… We will not walk away and leave a vacuum for China, Russia or Iran to fill.” [and] will seek to seize this moment with active and principled American leadership.”
Biden, who was scheduled to return to Washington later on Saturday, sat with the leaders of the six Persian Gulf nations, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan at a large round table in a hotel ballroom adorned under a crystal chandelier. . Reporters kept their distance and were not allowed to ask questions.
Throughout Biden’s trip, his first to the Middle East as president, administration officials have sought to link Russia with Iran, hoping to gain more support in the global effort to isolate the Kremlin, which continues to maintain close ties. links with Middle Eastern countries. None of these nations have joined the US and its European allies in sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Earlier this week, national security adviser Jake Sullivan accused Iran of plotting to sell hundreds of weapons-capable drones to Russia. On Saturday he said the administration has evidence that Russian officials visited Iranian airfields to see demonstrations of the technology.
The White House released images it said were captured in June showing the delegation.
“What’s happening in the Middle East, I mean, Russia is effectively betting on Iran,” an administration official said Saturday. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, added: “We are betting on a more integrated, more stable, more peaceful and prosperous Middle East region.”
Biden took advantage of the trip to highlight the gradual opening of ties between Israel and some Arab nations that until recently did not officially recognize the country. Washington is trying to build an integrated air defense system that includes Israel and several of the Arab nations as a bulwark against Iran.
Biden also defended increased oil production, especially from Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest oil producers. However, even if Saudi Arabia adds one or two million barrels a day of crude, it is not likely to have an impact on prices at the pump in the US.
The most controversial part of the trip, however, was Biden’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is implicated in the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi journalist. Mohammed has also been heavily criticized by human rights advocates for cracking down on dissent from women, minorities and activists.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden sharply rebuked Saudi leaders, saying he hoped to make the country a “pariah” for Khashoggi’s murder and other human rights abuses. Upon taking office, Biden toned down that criticism. Caught between his rhetoric and the need to cut oil prices, Biden sought to ease tensions with Saudi Arabia by meeting with Mohammed, framing it as part of a broader conference with Arab leaders and an effort to improve security in the region.
Hoping to avoid a photo of him shaking Mohammed’s hand, Biden gave him a head start before their Friday meetings.
Khashoggi’s fiancée, human rights advocates and the editor of the Washington Post criticized Biden anyway. “The fist bump between President Biden and Mohammed bin Salman was worse than a handshake, it was embarrassing,” said Fred Ryan, the newspaper’s publisher, which employed Khashoggi.
Biden said Friday that Mohammed told him that he was not personally responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. The president claimed that he told Mohammed that he thought the prince was.
Khashoggi, a vocal critic of the Saudi royal family, was assassinated and his body dismembered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by a Saudi death squad. US intelligence services concluded that the squad was sent by the crown prince.
Biden on Saturday again did not mention Khashoggi in his public comments, but appeared to allude to him in the final public meeting with other Arab leaders.
Sitting next to Mohammed, Biden devoted a section of his speech to the importance of tolerating dissent as a way to unlock innovation and build accountable institutions.
“I’ve gotten a lot of flak over the years,” Biden said. “It’s not fun.”
“No country gets it right all the time, even most of the time, including the United States,” he added. “But our people are our strength. Our countries with the confidence to learn from mistakes are strengthened”.
Bierman reported from Jeddah and Wilkinson from Washington.
This story originally appeared on Los Angeles Times.