President Joe Biden has become the first US leader to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, signalling warming ties between the Middle East nations as they find common cause against regional threats from Iran.
Air Force One landed in Jeddah ahead of meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of the kingdom.
The crown prince, often referred to by his initials MBS, welcomed Mr Biden at a royal palace with a fist bump.
There was little evidence of any warmth between the leaders, and none of the backslapping or smiles that Mr Biden or the crown prince usually display when greeting other leaders.
US intelligence officials have determined the crown prince likely ordered the 2018 killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
During his 2020 campaign for the White House, Mr Biden had pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” because of Mr Khashoggi’s killing and other human rights abuses.
He now seeks closer ties with the kingdom to bolster security in the region as Iran’s nuclear development continues unabated, and to secure additional energy supplies amid global tightening due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mr Biden’s visit to the Red Sea port city will include his participation in a meeting of the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
Earlier on Friday, Saudi Arabia opened its air space to “all air carriers,” signalling the end of its long-standing ban on Israeli flights overflying its territory — a key step toward normalisation between the two nations.
The Saudis held a subdued welcome for Mr Biden at the airport in Jeddah, with none of the ceremony that accompanied his stop this week in Israel.
He was greeted by Mecca’s governor, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, Princess Reema bint Bandar, and then walked down a lavender carpet that led to the limousine that whisked him to the most highly anticipated meeting of his trip.
The president was scheduled to sit down with King Salman, the 86-year-old monarch who has suffered from poor health, including two hospital admissions this year. Then he was to participate in a broader meeting including Prince Mohammed, the presumed heir to the throne.
The future of the region, including the possibility of closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as the ebb and flow of the world’s oil supply could depend on the relationship between the 79-year-old US president and the 36-year-old Saudi royal.
The visit may already be seen as a win for Prince Mohammed.
His rise to power has ushered in a new era for the kingdom as it works to build a homegrown military and weapons industry, wean itself from reliance on oil for revenue and build ties with Israel and other nations as a hedge against the perception that the US is a less reliable security partner.
Mr Biden has refused to speak with the crown prince until now, and Friday’s meeting could bestow greater legitimacy on his path to the throne.
The President has declined to say whether he would raise the 2018 killing of Mr Khashoggi.
“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear. And I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” Mr Biden has said.
“The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia, though, is much broader. It’s to promote US interests — promote US interests in a way that I think we have an opportunity to reassert what I think we made a mistake of walking away from: our influence in the Middle East.”
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