Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Jul 15 (EFE).- President Joe Biden said here Friday that he told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the United States government views him as responsible for the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“I raised it at the top of the meeting, making clear what I thought at the time and what I think of it now,” Biden said following talks in Jeddah with the crown prince, commonly known as MBS.
“I was straightforward and direct in discussing it. I made my view crystal clear. I said very straightforwardly for an American president to be silent on an issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am. I always stand up for our values,” Biden said.
The president recounted that MBS rejected the accusation.
“He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it,” Biden said. “I indicated that I thought he was.”
Asked whether he regretted his comments during the 2020 election campaign labeling the Saudi government a “pariah” for Khashoggi’s killing, the president was emphatic: “I don’t regret anything I said.”
Khashoggi, a former member of the Saudi elite who fell out of favor for criticizing MBS, had been living in self-imposed exile in the US for more than a year at the time of his visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, to obtain documents he needed to wed Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish citizen.
Cengiz sounded the alarm when Khashoggi failed to reappear and revelations by the Turkish government ultimately forced the Kingdom to admit that Khashoggi was murdered and his body cut up.
No senior official was among the eight people Saudi Arabia convicted for Khashoggi’s murder and the Kingdom has continued to insist that the crown prince was not involved, even after the release in February 2021 of a US intelligence report pointing the finger at MBS.
Biden had received criticism for his planned meeting with MBS and the level of speculation about how he would interact with the prince prompted the White House to announce before the trip that the 79-year-old president would not shake hands with any foreign leaders as a precaution against Covid-19.
When the president arrived at the Royal Palace in Jeddah from the airport, MBS was there to greet him and the two men exchanged a fist bump and the image quickly went viral.
Turning to other issues, Biden told reporters that Saudi Arabia had pledged to do its part in stabilizing international oil markets roiled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and ensuing Western sanctions against Moscow, the world’s No. 2 crude exporter after Riyadh.
The president also announced an accord that will allow Saudi Arabia to move forward with development on two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafrir, that Israel ceded to Egypt in the 1979 peace treaty.
“We’ve concluded a historic deal to transform a flashpoint at the heart of the Middle East wars into an area of peace,” Biden said. “International peacekeepers, including US troops. will leave Tiran Island in the Red Sea where they’ve been for over 40 years since the Camp David Accords.”
Riyadh made removal of the peacekeepers a condition of acquiring the islands from Egypt, but given the absence of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the US had to act as intermediary.
“Now as a result of this breakthrough, this island will be open to tourism and economic development while retaining all necessary security arrangements and the present freedom of navigation of all parties, including Israel,” Biden said.
Saudi’s assurances on freedom of navigation, as well as their agreement to allow Israeli airliners to overfly the Kingdom, persuaded Israel to go along with the arrangement.
“This is the first tangible step on the path of what I hope will be a broader normalization of relations,” the US president said of Saudi’s authorization of Israeli civilian planes in its airspace.
Biden also touted Riyadh’s willingness to work to “extend and strengthen” the United Nations-brokered truce in Yemen, where nearly 400,000 have died in a multisided war that escalated in 2015 with Saudi airstrikes on its southern neighbor.
The president offered yet another defense of his decision to make the trip.