The slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s shadow loomed large over US President Joe Biden’s maiden visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday and his much-anticipated meeting with Khashoggi’s killer – the kingdom’s de-facto ruler and crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
Biden, who defended his visit to the Arab kingdom despite blistering criticism from human rights watchdogs, was greeted by a fist bump by the notorious prince, known by his initials MBS.
The two met at the Royal Palace in the Saudi port city of Jeddah on the second leg of Biden's West Asia tour.
US president said he told the crown prince that he held him responsible for the 2018 murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and a US citizen, as they held deliberations meant to reset relations with the key Arab ally.
"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 what I think about it now," Biden told reporters.
He said he was “straight forward and direct in discussing” the issue of Khashoggi with the hosts.
Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered by a Saudi "hit squad" at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, used to be a vocal critic of the Saudi regime and the crown prince.
According to reports, he was lured into the diplomatic mission under the pretext of being provided with papers for his wedding. He was suffocated and dismembered while his fiance waited outside for him.
Saudi Arabia initially issued conflicting stories about Khashoggi’s disappearance, but eventually said that he had been killed in a “rogue” operation.
Despite denials by Riyadh, some Western governments and spy agencies said the crown prince had ordered the assassination, causing a global uproar.
The CIA in its report also concluded that the murder was directly ordered by the Saudi de-facto ruler, and the claim has been corroborated by many leading global human rights organizations.
The 37-year-old crown prince, in his meeting with Biden on Friday, refused to own responsibility for the diabolic crime.
"He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it," Biden said of the crown prince's response. "I indicated that I thought he was."
At the end of the press availability between Biden and the crown prince, an NBC News reporter was heard shouting “Jamal Khashoggi, will you apologize to his family?”
Both MBS and Biden ignored the question, to escape more embarrassment. The journalist later wrote on Twitter that a Saudi aide “grabbed my arm tightly.”
Biden said the two sides discussed energy and that he expected to see "further steps" from Saudi Arabia, a major oil producer, on energy in the coming weeks, an indication that Washington is prepared to overlook Saudi regime’s human rights abuses for economic interests.
Making Saudi a 'pariah'
As a presidential candidate, Biden had vowed to make Riyadh “pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are” on the world stage over Khashoggi’s murder.
His speeches and statements suggested that he was likely to adopt a tougher line on the kingdom than his predecessor Donald Trump.
“We will make clear that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons,” Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations in November 2020.
“America needs to insist on responsible Saudi actions and impose consequences for reckless ones," he added.
Energy interests, however, prompted the US president and his allies to decide not to isolate the Gulf country that has been seeking stronger ties with Russia and China.
Apart from sanctions on some lower-ranking Saudi officials, no other punitive measures have been taken against the kingdom.
Asked how he could be sure Saudi Arabia would not murder someone else like Khashoggi, Biden said “…what a silly question. How could I possibly be sure of any of that?”
'Blood on Biden's hands'
Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia and his fist bump with MBS has drawn widespread condemnation, including from Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz, who has been an outspoken critic of both Washington and Riyadh ever since the grisly murder.
Cengiz retweeted a photo of Biden’s fist bumping the prince, with a message from Khashoggi’s Twitter account.
“Hey @POTUS (president of the United States). Is this the accountability you promised for my murder. This blood of MBS (Mohammed bin Salman)’s next victim is on your hands," she said.
Asked about that tweet during his comments to reporters, Biden sufficed to saying, “I’m sorry she feels that way…”
Fred Ryan, the publisher and the CEO of The Washington Post, for which Khashoggi used to write, in a statement said the fist bump between Biden and prince was "worse than a handshake — it was shameful.”
“It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking,” Ryan said in that statement, which was tweeted by The Post’s spokeswoman.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, the Virginia Democrat who represents the district where Khashoggi was living at the time of his killing, also lashed out at Biden.
“Jamal Khashoggi, my constituent, was murdered and dismembered at the direction of the Saudi Crown Prince. This is no time for business as usual.”
Resetting ties with key ally
The United States appears to be eager to show that its relationship with Saudi Arabia has benefits far beyond oil, with Biden making strenuous efforts to mend fences with the Saudi leadership and walking back on his promises of holding the kingdom accountable.
Biden is looking to reset ties with a country that has been a key regional ally of Washington for decades, a major supplier of oil and a buyer of weapons.
Prior to Biden’s arrival, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters 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.
Analysts believe that Biden wants the world's largest exporter of crude to increase production to bring down soaring fuel prices amid the Ukraine war, which threaten Democratic chances in upcoming mid-term elections.
Biden will meet with a broader set of Arab leaders at a summit in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on Saturday.
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