US President Joe Biden has said he brought up the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the top of a meeting with senior Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah.
Speaking to reporters on Friday afternoon, Biden said he also discussed human rights “and the need for political reform” during the talks.
“As I always do, I made clear that the topic [of human rights] is vitally important to me and to the United States,” Biden said. “With respect to the murder of Khashoggi, I raised it at the top of the meeting, making it clear what I thought of it at the time, and when I think of it now.”
He added that a US president cannot be “silent on an issue of human rights”.
Biden was criticised earlier in the day for greeting the Saudi crown prince (MBS) – whom US intelligence agencies concluded was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 – with a fist bump when he arrived for the meetings.
“It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking,” said Fred Ryan, publisher of the Washington Post newspaper where Khashoggi worked at the time of his death. The Committee to Project Journalists also said it was “appalled” by Biden’s “failure” to hold the crown prince accountable.
As a candidate for president in 2019, Biden promised to treat the kingdom as a “pariah” over the journalist’s killing, and his administration had initially said that he would only deal with his direct counterpart, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz.
Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said Biden’s comments to reporters aimed to “do damage control” amid the criticism of his visit. “He was cleaning up what was clearly a bit of a public relations disaster,” she said.
The US president’s trip to Saudi Arabia comes amid efforts to reset Washington’s relationship with Riyadh, and as the world grapples with soaring energy costs linked to the war in Ukraine. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest oil producers.
Saudi Arabia has insisted that the killing of Khashoggi was a rogue operation that took place without the approval or knowledge of top officials, including MBS. It has rejected the US intelligence agencies’ findings, and also says it tried and convicted those responsible for the murder.
Writing in US magazine Politico on Thursday, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, reiterated the kingdom’s “abhorrence” of the killing, describing it as a gruesome atrocity, but said it cannot define US-Saudi ties.
The Saudis held a subdued welcome for Biden at the airport in Jeddah, with none of the ceremony that accompanied his stop this week in Israel. Biden was greeted by Mecca’s governor, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, and the Saudi ambassador to the US.
Prior to Biden’s arrival, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on board Air Force One that Biden would “clearly and substantively” lay out his vision for Washington’s engagement in the Middle East during his meetings in Saudi Arabia.
“He’s intent on ensuring that there is not a vacuum in the Middle East for China and Russia to fill, that American leadership and American engagement will be a feature of US policy in this region, and that we intend to play a critical role in this strategically vital region on an ongoing basis,” Sullivan said.
Biden held talks with Saudi King Salman at the royal palace in Jeddah and then the US president and his team had a working session with MBS and Saudi ministers.
Experts have said energy interests have pushed Biden to travel to the kingdom.
The US is eager to see Saudi Arabia and its Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) partners pump more oil to help bring down the high cost of gasoline and ease the highest US inflation rate in 40 years.
Biden will meet with a broader set of Arab leaders at a meeting in Jeddah on Saturday.
But a US official told the Reuters news agency ahead of the visit that Washington was not expecting Riyadh to immediately boost oil production and was eyeing the outcome of the next OPEC+ meeting on August 3.
Biden noted during his brief Friday afternoon news conference that oil prices have been dropping since before his trip to the Middle East, saying the potential effects of his visit to Saudi Arabia on the energy market would not be felt “for another couple of weeks”.
Spare capacity within OPEC is running low, with most producers pumping at maximum capacity. It is unclear how much extra supply Saudi Arabia could bring to the market and how quickly.
OPEC+ decided last month to increase output targets by 648,000 barrels per day (bpd) in August, ending record production cuts that it brought at the height of the pandemic to counter collapsing demand.
Meanwhile, the US president also enumerated a list of agreements that he said US and Saudi officials formalised at Friday’s meetings, describing them as “significant business”.
He listed deals to allow Israeli flights into Saudi airspace and to transfer two Red Sea islands from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty, as well as infrastructure and clean energy projects.
“Thanks to months of steady diplomacy between my administration and Saudi Arabia, it is finally a reality,” Biden had said in an earlier statement about the airspace agreement.
That deal follows years of de facto rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Two years ago, Riyadh did not protest when the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain moved to normalise relations with Israel as part of a series of US-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords.
The Saudi ambassador to Washington said US-Saudi efforts to ensure peace and security should focus on enhancing cooperation and “reinforcing a rules-based system” to confront the “vision of chaos promoted by Iran”.
During his visit to Israel, Biden and caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a joint pledge to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Tehran, which slammed the US-Israeli declaration, denies seeking such weapons.