Biden tries to allay concerns about US engagement in the Middle East in meetings with key leaders

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The president said U.S. leadership in the Middle East would focus on using diplomacy to strengthen alliances and build coalitions, and that U.S. goals would remain “focused, realistic and achievable.”

His speech comes nearly a year after the United States withdrew all military troops from Afghanistan and ended 20 years of war in the country. He noted that his visit to the Middle East was the first time since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that a US president had visited the region without US troops engaged in fighting in the region, although US forces continue to carry out operations in Syria.

Biden’s foreign policy since taking office has largely focused on countering China’s growing geopolitical influence and Russia’s war in Ukraine, raising questions about the extent of engagement of the President to engage in the Middle East. But at a summit in Jeddah on Saturday, the president sought to assure other Middle East leaders — and the rest of the world — that the United States still views the region as crucial to its foreign policy goals.

‘Let me make it clear that the United States will remain an active and engaged partner in the Middle East,’ Biden said at a summit attended by key leaders on the last day of his Middle East swing. .

The President said: “As the world becomes increasingly competitive and the challenges we face grow more complex, it becomes increasingly clear to me how closely our interests are tied to the successes of the Middle East. . We are not going to walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.”

The president on Saturday announced $1 billion in food security assistance to the Middle East and North Africa. The president also announced that Gulf Arab leaders are pledging more than $3 billion over the next two years in projects that align with global infrastructure and investment.

The president said the United States would focus on supporting countries “that subscribe to a rules-based international order,” including helping those countries defend against foreign threats. He thanked the leaders present for voting to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly and called it a “watershed moment” that showed “the core values” of the region.

He spoke of the importance of protecting “freedom of navigation” on Middle Eastern waterways, which allows for the free flow of trade and resources throughout the region. Biden said the United States has established a new naval task force to work in partnership with Middle Eastern countries to help secure the Red Sea.

Biden said the United States would “work to reduce tensions, de-escalate and end conflicts wherever possible.” He cited the truce in Yemen – his first national truce in six years – as an example of successful diplomacy. He again swore never to let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon.

The president also spoke about human rights as he sat next to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, calling the values ​​enshrined in the UN charter “founding who we are as Americans. “.

“I’ve gotten a lot of flak over the years. It’s not fun. But the ability to speak openly, to exchange ideas freely, is what unlocks innovation,” Biden said.

Biden held several bilateral meetings with leaders from Iraq, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and participated in a GCC+3 summit on Saturday. The GCC+3 is made up of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – a alliance of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman – plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. He left Saudi Arabia for Washington after concluding his meetings.

Large parts of the region have been embroiled in economic turmoil in recent years, exacerbated by the pandemic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s choking off of Ukraine’s vast wheat exports have also pushed much of the Middle East and North Africa to the brink of food insecurity. large scale.

Biden came to Jeddah seeking solutions to one of his main political problems at home – exorbitant gas prices – as diplomacy with Saudi Arabia in the Middle East was seen as one of the few avenues he could borrow to bring down the prices that are straining millions of Americans.

But White House officials have said the president will not return to Washington on Saturday with explicit increases in oil production. There are expected to be increases in the coming months – against the backdrop of increased production levels from the OPEC+ cartel presented at its August meeting.

In his remarks at the summit, bin Salman said joint international efforts were needed for the recovery of the global economy and that “unrealistic policies” on energy would lead to “unprecedented inflation”.

“The adoption of unrealistic policies to reduce emissions by excluding major energy sources, without considering the impact of these policies on the social and economic pillars of sustainable development and global supply chains, will lead in the coming years to unprecedented inflation, rising fuel prices, rising unemployment and exacerbating dangerous social and security issues including poverty, starvation, escalating crime, extremism and terrorism “said the crown prince.

Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia has been closely watched. The president on Friday announced several new areas of cooperation aimed at reshaping the US-Saudi relationship, but it was his interactions with the Saudi crown prince that got the most attention.

The United States declassified an intelligence report last year that concluded bin Salman approved the killing of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Despite once vowing to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the world stage, Biden slammed the crown prince as he greeted him in Jeddah ahead of their meetings. Fellow Democrats and others decried the gesture as too friendly and said it sent the wrong message.

Biden later told reporters he raised Khashoggi’s murder directly with bin Salman and said he believed the crown prince was responsible.

He faced Saudi pushback, according to a source familiar with the matter. The crown prince, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, told Biden that any attempt to impose values ​​on another country was seen as counterproductive to the relationship. He went on to note that there had been incidents, including the abuse of prisoners by US servicemen at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which reflect badly on the United States.

The recent killing of Al Jazeera Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank and the US response, which drew criticism from Abu Akleh’s family, were also raised by the Saudi side, the source said.

On Saturday, senior administration officials defended the trip as an opportunity to raise concerns about the kingdom’s rights record with the Saudi crown prince. It would have been “a step backwards if the president hadn’t come to the region and it would be a step backwards if he hadn’t and wanted to sit down and raise concerns about human rights with foreign leaders around the world,” an official said.

Responding to a question on Saturday about the possibility of a widely expected Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, an official said “it’s going to take time.”

The Biden administration has sought for months to formalize security and economic agreements between Saudi Arabia and Israel, in an effort to prepare the ground for a normalization agreement between the two countries.

Riyadh is believed to have secret ties with Israel, but has yet to officially disclose those diplomatic ties. In 2020, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly traveled to Saudi Arabia for a secret meeting with the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – a claim that has been denied by the highest. diplomat from Riyadh.

An eventual normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia has been hailed as the “crown jewel” of agreements between the Jewish state and the Arab world. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan normalized relations with Israel in 2020 as part of a wave of agreements at the end of former President Donald Trump’s term.

CNN’s Phil Mattingly, Allie Malloy and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.

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