US will not allow China and Russia to dominate Middle East, Biden tells Arab leaders

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Recognition…Mohammed Al-Shaikh/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

Since entering the White House, President Biden had refused to meet and even speak to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, to condemn him for the gruesome murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to punish Saudi agents in 2018.

But that objection fell by the wayside on Friday when Mr. Biden and Prince Mohammed met face-to-face during Mr. Biden’s first trip to Saudi Arabia for a regional summit focused on oil and Iran.

The two leaders briefly discussed the case, according to US and Saudi officials, but effectively agreed to disagree over Prince Mohammed’s guilt before announcing a series of initiatives aimed at strengthening the close partnership between their countries.

This ended the latest high-level attempt to hold Prince Mohammed accountable for the murder.

The conversation between the two leaders took place behind closed doors and slightly different accounts emerged.

Mr Biden told reporters he privately confronted Prince Mohammed early in their meeting about what he called an “outrageous” murder, even telling the prince that Mr Biden blamed him for it.

“I’ve made my view crystal clear,” Biden said.

Separately, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, described to reporters a less controversial human rights exchange that briefly mentioned the killing.

Calling the killing “a terrible mistake,” Mr al-Jubeir said those responsible for the crime had been punished, that the United States and Saudi Arabia had moved on, and that the United States was in no position to criticize the torture of prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison by American troops.

Mr. Khashoggi was one of Saudi Arabia’s most prolific journalists and for years was considered a palace insider who could effectively explain the kingdom’s position.

But after Prince Mohammed came to power in 2015, Mr Khashoggi criticized the prince’s lack of tolerance for dissenting views and, fearing arrest, fled to the United States, where he wrote columns for the Washington Post criticizing the prince’s initiatives.

In October 2018, Mr. Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancé. He never came out.

Turkish officials and a United Nations investigator later detailed how he was confronted by a hit squad dispatched from Saudi Arabia, who strangled him and injected him with a tranquilizer, killing him. A coroner then dismembered his body and a double body wandered around Istanbul wearing Mr Khashoggi’s clothes in a failed attempt to convince the world he was still alive.

For weeks, Saudi officials denied that the kingdom was behind his crime, but the perpetrators were caught on camera and identified, and some were closely linked to Prince Mohammed.

Saudi officials eventually acknowledged Mr Khashoggi’s murder but insisted it had been carried out by rogue agents without such orders from Riyadh.

Although Prince Mohammed said he had no inkling of the plot, the killing left a deep stain on his efforts to portray himself as a forward-thinking reformer. A Saudi trial that found eight men guilty in connection with the murder did little to quell international outrage.

The assassination of Mr. Khashoggi was one of the main reasons Mr. Biden vowed during his election campaign to treat the Saudis “like the pariahs that they are”.

At the White House, he authorized the release of a CIA assessment that said the prince authorized the operation that led to Mr Khashoggi’s death. Mr Biden also refused to speak to Prince Mohammed, saying his own counterpart is the king.

That is, until Friday, when Mr. Biden sat down with Prince Mohammed to discuss oil supplies, regional security and other issues.

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