Joe Biden visits Saudi Arabia with Iran and security top of the agenda

US president fist bumped Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on arrival in kingdom on Friday

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Saudi Arabia has committed to help “stabilise” the international energy market following bilateral discussions between US President Joe Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We have welcomed the increase in production levels 50 per cent above what was planned for July and August,” the White House said in a statement.

“These steps and further steps that we anticipate over the coming weeks have and will help stabilise markets considerably.”

Lowering the price of oil and easing Americans' financial costs at the pump was a major objective for Mr Biden, who is making his first trip to the Middle East since taking office.

Friday's announcement stopped short of presenting a concrete commitment by Saudi Arabia to increase oil production.

The US president is hoping to convince Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to boost oil production over the coming months to help bring down the cost of petrol.

On Friday, Mr Biden flew aboard Air Force One from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Jeddah, the first US president to make that trip. The flight was made possible after Saudi Arabia agreed to “open” its skies to all civilian aircraft earlier in the day.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Saudi Arabia said the move would "complement the efforts aimed at consolidating the kingdom's position as a global hub connecting three continents and to enhance international air connectivity".

Planes coming from Israel will now be allowed to fly through Saudi airspace, shortening certain routes and reducing fuel costs.

The move was welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

“This is a first step,” Mr Lapid said on Twitter. “We will continue to work on this with the necessary caution, for the sake of the Israeli economy, Israeli security and the citizens of Israel.”

Upon touching down in Jeddah, Mr Biden was greeted by Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the US, and Prince Khalid Al Faisal Al Saud, Governor of Makkah.

The president gave a friendly fist bump to Princess Reema and then quickly shook hands with embassy staff on the tarmac before strolling down the purple carpet rolled out for him and getting into his armoured limousine.

It was a far cry from the welcome former president Donald Trump received when he took his first trip abroad to the kingdom shortly after taking office.

Mr Trump was met by King Salman and a large delegation at the airport in Riyadh.

While it was unsurprising that neither King Salman nor Prince Mohammed were there to greet the president, it is perhaps a reflection of the current state of play between the countries.

Mr Biden, who during his presidential campaign promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, fist bumped Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman upon arriving at Al Salam Palace.

The US leader also sat down with King Salman before engaging in talks with Prince Mohammed.

During talks, the US agreed to withdraw its peacekeeping troops from Tiran Island in the Red Sea, a move that will allow Saudi Arabia to assume full control of the island, which has been in limbo for several years, stuck between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The kingdom hopes to develop the island for tourism.

“Saudi Arabia has agreed to preserve and continue all existing commitments and procedures in the area," the White House said. "President Biden welcomed this arrangement, which was negotiated over many months and fully took into consideration the interests of all parties, including Israel."

The Biden administration had been negotiating a deal over the island for months and was hoping to make progress on it during the trip.

The two countries committed to working together to develop stronger 5G and 6G cellular technologies, which in turn will help “developing and middle-income states”, the White House said.

Mr Biden has said he is looking to reassert US influence in the region and his trip comes at a time of upheaval.

Oil and food prices have surged since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and global inflationary pressure is pushing prices up.

Talks with Iran on reviving a nuclear accord to limit Tehran’s enrichment of uranium have stalled and a tentative ceasefire in Yemen is holding, but major challenges remain in ending the lengthy conflict.

These issues and more will be on Mr Biden’s agenda in the kingdom as he seeks to reset the US-Gulf relationships at a meeting with regional leaders on Saturday that also includes the leaders of US allies Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.

A major concern in the Gulf and broader Middle East is Iran’s nuclear programme, its support for proxies from Lebanon to Yemen and the threat of its ballistic missiles and armed drones.

In Israel, Mr Biden committed to deepening security co-operation and signed a pledge to use all national resources to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb – including, if needed, military operations.

Now the Gulf and Middle East partners will be looking for commitments to security and stability, especially as the US has cut the number of its troops in Iraq and consolidated its presence in the region as it looks towards Europe and Asia.

"The Jeddah summit is an opportunity to adopt a common understanding to deal with the challenges of security and stability ... and an approach to work and co-operation in the areas of development and prosperity," Gulf Co-Operation Council Secretary General Nayef Falah Al Hajraf.

Mr Biden’s visit to the kingdom also caps off months of visits to the kingdom by US officials seeking to shore up a decades-long strategic partnership.

After entering office, the US president halted arms sales to the kingdom, described it as a “pariah state” and criticised the leadership – and particularly the crown prince – over the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Istanbul consulate in 2018.

But Mr Biden says these statements weren’t intended to damage the US-Saudi relationship.

“From the start, my aim was to reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years,” he wrote in an Op-Ed before the visit.

Officials on both sides say Mr Biden’s visit will focus on a US recommitment to Gulf security and a recommitment to the relationships more broadly.

On the day Biden arrived in the kingdom, Princess Reema wrote in Politico magazine that "history has shown us that the United States and Saudi Arabia have emerged from every challenge stronger together and the future should be no different".

But she also said that gone are the days that US-Gulf ties were about security in exchange for oil; instead, Saudi Arabia wants a partnership of equals looking to address climate change, food security, development, empowerment and entrepreneurship together.

One major question in the US since he boarded Air Force One earlier this week had been whether there will be a public handshake between Mr Biden and Prince Mohammed after the fist bump greeting.

While the White House put out statements insisting that Covid-19 protocols meant the president would not be shaking any hands during the trip, the rule didn’t seem to last beyond the initial fist bump greeting on Wednesday with Mr Lapid, Israel's prime minister.

Mr Biden was then seen in an extended handshake with former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shortly after and from there was seen shaking hands with numerous officials over the two-day visit.

“Whatever image comes out with the president and the crown prince in the same frame is going to be distributed for years to come,” Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Bloomberg.

Updated: July 16, 2022, 7:22 AM
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