Will He? Won’t He? Biden Insists He’s ‘Not Going to Meet’ MBS as Saudis, WH Confirm Meeting
President Biden will travel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in mid-July in a bid to restore the soured relations between Washington and Riyadh amid the global energy crunch. Biden burned his bridges with the Saudis in 2019 by promising to make Riyadh “pay” for the slaying of a Saudi-born Washington Post journalist.
Joe Biden has downplayed his upcoming face-to-face sit-down with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), insisting he won’t even actually be meeting with him despite confirmations from both the Saudis and the White House that he will be doing so.
“I’m not going to meet with – I’m not going to meet with MBS, I’m going to an international meeting. MBS is going to be part of it, just like there were people part of the discussion today,” Biden said, speaking to journalists on the White House lawn Friday.
Asked about how he would “handle” the case of Jamal Khashoggi – the Saudi journalist hacked up inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, Biden promised he would do so “the same way I’ve been handling it.”
The Saudi Press Agency reported Tuesday that Biden would visit the Gulf nation on 15-16 July, and that he would meet with both King Salman and the crown prince while attending a summit with other regional leaders.
“President Biden will meet with His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. The Crown Prince and President Biden will hold official talks that will focus on various areas of bilateral cooperation and joint efforts to address regional and global challenges,” the Saudi Embassy Washington, DC said in a press statement.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed this week that Biden would discuss “a range of bilateral, regional and global issues” with the Saudi leadership. “Yes, we can expect the president to see the crown prince as well,” Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday when pressed on the matter.
On the campaign trail in 2019, Biden vowed to make Riyadh and MBS “pay the price” and treat them like “the pariah that they are” over Khashoggi’s killing. US intelligence later concluded that the crown prince was involved. MBS said he was responsible for the slaying, “because it happened under my watch,” but denied direct involvement. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir calling the killing a “rogue operation” and vowed to bring those responsible to justice. A Saudi court sentenced five officials to death and gave three others decades-long prison sentences in late 2019. However, the five convicts were later pardoned, and in 2020 eight unnamed people said to be connected to the murder were sentenced to between 7 and 20 years in prison.
The July trip will be Biden’s first trip to the Middle East as president, with a stop-off also planned in Israel and the West Bank.
The president is widely expected to lobby Riyadh to ramp up oil production amid the current global shortages, which Washington has blamed on Moscow, but Russia has said has been caused by “suicidal” Western sanctions and attempts to boycott Russian energy supplies.
Activists and critics of the Saudi government have slammed Biden regarding the planned meeting with MBS, with Khalid Aljabri, son of exiled ex-Saudi intelligence officer Saad Aljabri, saying the sit-down would be “the equivalent of a presidential pardon for murder,” and a “Biden-issued license to kill more Khashoggis.”
Khashoggi worked as a columnist for the Washington Post and the Middle East Eye before his death. He left his home country in 2017 over his criticism of King Salman and MBS. In the 1980s and 1990s, he associated with future al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan during the Arab volunteer fighters’ intervention in that country to wage holy war against the Soviets.