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Biden’s Fraught Saudi Visit Garners Scathing Criticism and Modest Accords

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Biden exchanged the shaken fist for a fist bump on Friday as he abandoned his promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and sat down with the crown prince he deemed responsible for the grisly killing and dismemberment of a columnist who lived in the United States.

In the most fraught foreign visit of his presidency to date, Mr. Biden’s encounter with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave the de facto Saudi leader a measure of the international rehabilitation he sought, while securing steps toward closer relations with Israel and an unannounced understanding that the kingdom would soon pump more oil to relieve high gas prices at home.

Mr. Biden’s discomfort was palpable as he avoided a handshake with the prince in favor of a fist bump that in the end proved no less problematic politically. While cameras recorded the opening of their subsequent meeting, the president made no mention of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist assassinated in 2018 by Saudi operatives, and the prince smiled silently when a reporter asked if he owed an apology to the family.

But Mr. Biden later told reporters Mr. Khashoggi’s murder was “outrageous” and said he had confronted the crown prince privately. “I raised it at the top of the meeting, making clear what I thought at the time and what I think of it now,” he said. “I was straightforward and direct in discussing it. I made my view crystal clear.”

He reported that Prince Mohammed, often known by his initials M.B.S., had denied culpability. “He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it,” Mr. Biden said. “I indicated that I thought he was.”

Saudi officials contradicted his account. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, told reporters that he did not hear Mr. Biden tell the crown prince that he was responsible, describing instead a brief and less contentious exchange that focused on human rights without dwelling on the killing.

Mr. Jubeir called the Khashoggi murder “a terrible mistake,” but added that the two countries have moved on and he showed no interest in looking back. “People were put on trial,” he said, referring to underlings convicted in the case. “We have individuals who are paying the price.”

The Saudis wasted little time splashing photographs of the president and the prince across social media two years after Mr. Biden had vowed on a campaign stage to make them “pay the price” for Mr. Khashoggi’s murder and declared that he saw “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

White House officials knew there would be a political cost, but calculated the alliance with Saudi Arabia was too important to leave in limbo forever.

Human rights activists and those who had been close to Mr. Khashoggi expressed outrage. Hatice Cengiz, his fiancée, tweeted what she said Mr. Khashoggi would have thought: “Is this the accountability you promised for my murder? The blood of MBS’s next victims is on your hands.”

Fred Ryan, the Post’s publisher, was equally scathing. “The fist bump between President Biden and Mohammed bin Salman was worse than a handshake — it was shameful,” he 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 White House was eager to show the tangible benefits of a revived relationship with Saudi Arabia, releasing a raft of accords negotiated by a team led by Brett McGurk, the president’s Middle East coordinator, who has served every president since George W. Bush. Among them were agreements to open Saudi airspace to all Israeli commercial flights for the first time, extend a cease-fire in the devastating eight-year-old war in Yemen and build 5G telecommunications networks.

Some of the accords simply ratified action underway. For example, the administration said that Saudi Arabia would “support global oil market balancing for sustained economic growth,” without specifying how much additional petroleum the Saudis and their allies in the United Arab Emirates would pump starting in the fall. That announcement is expected in August, as part of a larger decision by the OPEC Plus group of oil-producing nations.

But others were new. The two nations announced the withdrawal of a small American peacekeeping force stationed for four decades on Tiran Island, once the source of many conflicts in the region, including during the Six-Day War in 1967. The Americans will leave by the end of the year.

Tiran and the neighboring island of Sanafir were previously administered by Egypt and, while uninhabited, are strategically important because they sit where the Red Sea connects to the Gulf of Aqaba, near Israel’s only access to the gulf. The return of the islands to Saudi Arabia required Israeli assent because of its Camp David Accords, with Egypt and the Saudis agreeing to respect Israeli freedom of navigation.

The overflights and island deals fell short of the broader Abraham Accords that established diplomatic relations between Israel and several other Arab states under President Donald J. Trump. But they represented the first tentative steps toward possible normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the most influential of the Sunni Arab states in the region, which Mr. Biden’s team hopes to complete by the end of his term.

The president’s aides were particularly focused on progress in ending the Yemen war, which has produced one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. In effect, in their view, the meeting was a delayed reward for Saudi agreement several months ago to pause the war and encouragement to work toward a wider settlement.

“The last administration walked away from diplomacy when it came to ending the war in Yemen,” Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One. “This president re-engaged on that and now we have a 15-week truce, the longest peaceful period in that conflict in several years.”

Mr. Biden also announced new Saudi investments in solar and nuclear energy, among other technologies meant to meet climate change goals. But those long-term efforts are being overwhelmed for the moment by Mr. Biden’s request that the Saudis and others in the region boost oil production.

Some analysts thought it was not worth the trade-offs. “At a time when Biden is defending Ukraine, human rights, democracy against Russia, Biden walked into a meeting with a ruthless and repressive Saudi leader, which he seemed to enjoy, validated M.B.S.’s leadership and traded the status of the presidency for a set of gains, most of which were already in Saudi interests,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East diplomat at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The killing of Mr. Khashoggi shocked the world and undercut Prince Mohammed’s efforts to present himself as a reformer. Mr. Khashoggi, a longtime critic of the regime, was ambushed by Saudi killers at a consulate in Istanbul and mutilated with a bone saw. The C.I.A. concluded that Prince Mohammed approved the operation, but Mr. Trump maintained close ties. After taking office, Mr. Biden released the intelligence report.

Prince Mohammed has taken no responsibility. In an interview with The Atlantic earlier this year, he suggested Mr. Khashoggi was not important enough to assassinate. “If that’s the way we did things, Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list,” he said.

Mr. Jubeir, the Saudi minister, told reporters on Friday that the United States was in no position to lecture.

“Did George Bush direct people to torture at Abu Ghraib?” Mr. Jubeir asked, referring to prisoner abuses during the Iraq War. “No, he did not.” The C.I.A. report on Prince Mohammed was “just an assessment,” he added, noting that other assessments, including over Iraq’s nonexistent nuclear weapons, “were wrong.”

Despite fitful moves toward reform in recent years, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most repressive places on the planet, disguised only by the trappings of wealth and the illusion of modernity. Just four months ago, the authorities here conducted a mass execution of 81 people, some for “disrupting the social fabric and national cohesion” and “participating in and inciting sit-ins and protests,” according to human rights groups.

Mr. Biden had been described by advisers as deeply reluctant to make the trip to see Prince Mohammed, changing his mind only after months of discussions with aides and the increasing imperative of stabilizing energy markets roiled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

His trip here was characterized by a sense of defensiveness, as he insisted it was not what it looked like. Mr. Biden said he came not to meet with Prince Mohammed but to meet with leaders of nine Arab states gathering here on Saturday. He said it was not about oil, and no such agreement was announced, but the two privately reached an understanding that oil-producing states would agree to increase output at an Aug. 3 meeting, according to American officials.

Mr. Biden’s arrival was polite but perfunctory compared with the enthusiastic greeting Mr. Trump received in 2017 when King Salman, the crown prince’s father, welcomed him on the tarmac. Lining a lilac carpet below Air Force One on Friday were a small number of uniformed security officers bearing swords, even fewer than dispatched to welcome President Barack Obama when he arrived to a chilly welcome in 2016.

Mr. Biden was greeted not by the king but by Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, and Prince Khalid Al Faisal, a senior member of the royal family and governor of Mecca who is close to King Salman.

Mr. Biden appeared grim at times, foregoing the ebullient backslapping of his previous stop in Jerusalem. He knew he would be attacked for coming. Told later about the comments by Mr. Khashoggi’s fiancée, he said, “I’m sorry she feels that way,” and added that he still believes what he said two years ago. “I don’t regret anything that I said. What happened to Khashoggi was outrageous.”

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