US President Joe Biden said he warned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of future acts of violence against government critics at their meeting in Jeddah. He made it clear to the heir to the throne that another act like the murder of journalist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 would result in a “response” from the United States, Biden said on Friday evening after his consultations with bin Salman in the Saudi Arabian port city. The murder of Khashoggi was “at the top” of the topics of conversation.
The journalist Khashoggi, who lives in the USA, was brutally killed by a hit squad in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. US secret services see the crown prince – also known by his acronym “MBS” – as directly responsible. He denied ordering the killing. Biden has had to defend his trip and meeting with the crown prince against criticism for weeks. The US President arrived in Saudi Arabia from Israel on Friday.
Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, tweeted a picture of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcoming Biden to the US President with the caption: “The blood of MBS’ next victims is on your hands.” Biden said: “I’m sorry that she feels this way”.
Biden’s explosive visit to the kingdom began after a historic first direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia – the country he had described as a “pariah” before his election. At the beginning of his visit, he was welcomed by the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the port city of Jeddah on Friday evening. As a gesture of welcome, the US President and the Crown Prince touched their fists, as shown in recordings by Saudi Arabian state television.
It was expected that during his visit, Biden would work to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Biden was also obviously concerned with Saudi Arabia increasing its oil production – so that the price of oil falls and inflation in the USA is curbed.
Biden’s flight from Israel to Jeddah on the Red Sea was a first. Saudi Arabia only opened its airspace “to all airlines” on Friday morning, taking a step closer to Israel.
The Saudi Arabian civil aviation authority said the airspace would be “opened to all airlines that meet the authority’s overflight requirements.” This means that flights between Saudi Arabia and Israel are now generally possible – a step that Biden recognized as “historic”. Although his predecessor Donald Trump flew in the opposite direction from Saudi Arabia to Israel in 2017, this direct flight remained an exception.
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan stressed that the opening of the airspace between Israel and Saudi Arabia “paves the way for a more integrated, more stable and more secure Middle East region”.
There could also be further rapprochement on the issue of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea. Egypt pledged years ago to cede the islands to Saudi Arabia. However, since the islands can control access to the Israeli port of Eilat, Israel must give the green light to any change in the status of these islands under the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt.
High-ranking Israeli officials, who wished to remain anonymous, have now said Israel has “nothing against” the island being handed over to Saudi Arabia. According to Israeli media reports, Riyadh pledged to respect the islands’ demilitarization and to allow Israeli ships to pass.
On Saturday, the US President is expected to meet with leaders from the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq to discuss oil prices and the US role in the region.