Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief has branded U.S. President Joe Biden a “much diminished president” as Biden arrives in Jeddah to discuss oil production, defense and human rights.
During his visit over the weekend, Biden is expected to urge the Saudi government to ramp up oil production in a bid to rein in soaring costs, which in part drove U.S. inflation to a four-decade high of 9.1% in June ahead of crucial midterm elections in November. However, relations between the two countries remain strained on account of the current administration’s outspoken condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, an issue Biden has vowed to raise in bilateral talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Speaking to CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Friday, Prince Turki Al-Faisal said Biden was coming in as a “much diminished president” compared with when he was inaugurated in January 2021. “As an example, on energy issues, he came in with a policy to stop completely fossil fuel usage not only in the United States, but worldwide, and now he is finding himself having to rely on fossil fuels as a means of meeting the energy shortage that has come about, not only because of the Ukraine war, but also because of U.S. policy itself that shut down pipelines and stopped issuing … discovery of oil on U.S. soil,” he said. Central to the fractious relationship between the two historical allies is the allegation from the U.S. intelligence community that the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, directly ordered the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi government has repeatedly rejected the accusation.
Prince Turki, who was the head of Saudi intelligence services between 1979 and 2001 and has also served as the kingdom’s ambassador to the U.S., questioned Washington’s belief that it holds the moral high ground on human rights issues.
“So instead of shouting at each other, we should engage in trying to improve what would be on the ground for both the people of the United States and for Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“So what I would say is, any visitor and not just the American president who has complaints about Saudi issues like human rights and so on, please get off your high horse.”
Also central to the president’s agenda during the Middle East trip is the peace process, and Biden on Friday promised an additional $100 million to support Palestinian hospitals in Jerusalem as he attempted to rejuvenate political dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Thursday that action must be on the table if Iran continues to develop its nuclear program, urging the U.S. to adopt a tougher stance against Tehran.
Prince Turki said that while he hoped Biden could make some headway, “the deck is stacked against him.”
“His visit to Israel I think has shown that he is not much using his history to force Israel, for example, to comply with the United Nations Security Council resolutions, whether 242 or 338, or subsequent resolutions that the U.S. itself has supported in the past,” he said.
He added that Biden will have a tough time convincing the Saudis that he is sincere in engaging with Riyadh on issues such as peace, energy, terrorism and Iran.
“These are files that are full of baggage from the past, and trying to untangle them is going to be quite a project for the president,” Prince Turki said.
President Joe Biden aimed to tout policy progress Friday after several highly criticized meetings with Saudi Arabia’s royalty, but the kingdom’s human rights abuses overshadowed all other topics.
Biden said his team accomplished “significant business” in Jeddah following months of what he described as quiet diplomacy. Among the topics of progress, Saudi Arabia and Israel which Biden also visited this week did take tangible steps toward normalizing relations, according to the president.
Visiting oil-rich Saudi Arabia as high gas prices contribute to low approval ratings at home, Biden also said he discussed oil supply during the meetings. He also pointed to 5G, climate policy and countering China’s influence in the region as topics of discussion.
But Biden’s address from Saudi Arabia came hours after the president fist-bumped Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who likely ordered the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His decision to engage with the crown prince cast a shadow over the policy progress Biden aimed to showcase.
U.S. intelligence concluded that the crown prince, known as MBS, ordered Khashoggi’s murder. He has previously denied having a role in the dismemberment of the journalist. Biden said that he raised human rights and the murder of Khashoggi at the start of his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed.
“For an American president to be silent on the issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am,” Biden told reporters in Jeddah. The president added that the crown prince told him that he did not have anything to do with the disappearance and murder of Khashoggi. Biden added that he did not regret saying in 2019 as a presidential candidate that he wanted to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” after Khashoggi’s murder.
“What happened to Khashoggi was outrageous,” Biden said. Biden last week published an op-ed in The Washington Post where Khashoggi worked as a columnist justifying his visit to Saudi Arabia.
“From the start, my aim was to reorient but not rupture relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years,” Biden wrote in that article, which mentions the slain journalist by name once.
“I know that there are many who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia,” the president wrote. “My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank.”In a statement Friday, Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan said Biden’s fist bump “projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking.”
Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz retweeted a photo of Biden fist-bumping the prince, with a message from Khashoggi’s Twitter account: “Hey @POTUS. Is this the accountability you promised for my murder. This blood of MBS’s next victim is on your hands. ”When asked to respond to Khashoggi’s fiancee’s tweet, Biden said that he was sorry she felt that way. “I’m sorry she feels that way. I was straightforward back then. I was straightforward today,” Biden said. Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich monarchy is a major strategic partner for the U.S. and the top buyer of U.S.-made arms. That role has safeguarded the kingdom from retaliatory sanctions over Khashoggi’s death and the Saudi-led war in Yemen.