Biden discusses all matters in Saudi visit: Yemen, Khashoggi, oil, aviation

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Jess Diez
Managing Editor & Research Associate, Middle East Policy Council

July 19, 2022

On Friday, July 15, U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in Saudi Arabia to meet with leadership, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), in Jeddah. According to remarks released from the White House, the President focused on granting civilian carriers access to Saudi airspace, opening the Red Sea’s Tiran Island to tourism and economic development, and extending the ceasefire in Yemen. Saudi and U.S. officials were generally pleased with the visit’s results, included the signing of The Jeddah Communique, a joint statement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia which included discussion of collaboration within the energy sector. However, regional neighbors, such as Israel and Yemen, did not consistently share the same sentiment. 

Expectations from President Biden’s July tour of the Middle East were high. Discussed in Arab News, former senior CIA operations officer and Middle East analyst Norman Roule analyzed that the tour “could not only have a major impact on US-Saudi and regional long-term ties, but also lead to the building of a relationship that will help both countries achieve their long-term goals…Despite soaring fuel prices and quickening inflation in the US, the White House has denied that Biden’s visit will focus primarily on oil, a sentiment with which Roule agrees.”

Writing for Al-Monitor, journalists Aurelia End and Robbie Corey-Boulet showcased Saudi Crown Prince MBS’s hopes of establishing a new era of U.S.-Saudi cooperation, which MBS believes would benefit development and security on domestic, regional, and global scales: “Riyadh and Washington signed 18 agreements [on] Friday on areas including energy, space, health and investment, including developing 5G and 6G technology, a Saudi statement said. The two nations, in a joint statement, also voiced a ‘commitment to the stability of global energy markets,’ while acknowledging the importance of cooperation ‘in light of the current crisis in Ukraine and its repercussions.’”

Journalist Reem Krimly, writing for Al Arabiya, reported on the Crown Prince’s response to conversation regarding the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. MBS “said what happened with Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi was ‘regrettable,’ during his meeting with US President Joe Biden in the Kingdom’s port city of Jeddah on Friday… The Crown Prince said that Saudi Arabia has undertaken all the legal procedures in the Khashoggi case, from investigations, to trials, to sentencing, and the implementation of the sentences. The Kingdom has also put in place procedures that prevent the occurrence of such mistakes again at any point in the future. During the meeting, the Crown Prince noted that incidents like this can occur anywhere in the world, adding that in the same year other journalists were killed in other places. He mentioned that the US has also made mistakes, citing Abu Ghuraib in Iraq and others as examples…Prince Mohammed also mentioned the killing of US journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and asked what the US and other countries have done in that regard.”

Alongside the killing of Khashoggi, the Yemen conflict stood out as a majorly contented Saudi-related topic. The Saudi Gazette quoted Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud on the recent developments in Yemen: “‘We are working seriously to reach a comprehensive ceasefire in Yemen, and the Houthis must understand that Yemen’s interest is in peace and stability…’ adding that ‘Iranian weapons are part of the reasons for the continuing conflict in Yemen.’”

Asharq Al-Awsat cited the President’s assessment of the ceasefire in Yemen after his meetings with Saudi leadership: “I had a good series of meetings… Thanks to many months of quiet diplomacy by the staff, we’ve accomplished some significant business today…We further agreed to pursue a diplomatic process to achieve a wider settlement in Yemen.”

Ahmad Algohbary, writing for the Middle East Eye, highlights Yemeni anti-war campaigners and their explicit condemnation of President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia. These campaigners have stated thatthe president has betrayed his values by meeting with Saudi Arabian officials who have been accused of rights abuses including murder, torture, and the killing of civilians in the Yemen war. While he stated that his administration had made great strides in trying to bring peace to war-ravaged Yemen, activists and analysts told MEE that it seemed the White House was less concerned with the plight of Yemenis and was more focused during this visit on developing a new regional front against Iran and expanding normalisation agreements between Israel and further Arab states.”

Yemeni activists were not the only group dissatisfied with President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Lazar Berman, writing for The Times of Israel, stated many Israelis had high expectations of the visit but were disappointed: “Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the visit ‘historic’…but the results of the trip were pedestrian, to say the least… Hours before Biden flew to Jeddah on Friday, the announcement that Israel had been waiting for finally emerged. Saudi Arabia’s Civil Aviation Authority declared that all civilian air carriers could now fly over the country. The Saudi statement did not mention Israel at all, but Lapid still called it ‘the first official step in normalization with Saudi Arabia.’ Other regional developments this week weren’t especially encouraging for Israel either. The much-discussed regional security alliance against Iran looks to be far less advanced than Israel would have hoped. Mentions of the framework during the visit were exceedingly vague, a far cry from a Middle Eastern NATO.”

Nevertheless, hopeful analysts are looking at the future in a positive light, seeing small achievements in the visit, past solely oil talks. Writing for Haaretz, Ben Samuels examined progression in aviation diplomacy and tourism: “According to Friday’s announced agreement, the multinational peacekeepers will be removed from Tiran by the end of 2022 and the area will be developed for tourism and other peaceful pursuits… These negotiations paved the way for Thursday’s announcement that Saudi Arabia would open its airspace for all civilian flights – including those from Israel… Gulf Air, Emirates and Israeli airlines were previously permitted to use Saudi airspace for Dubai-Tel Aviv and Manama-Tel Aviv routes, but Israel had been restricted from using Saudi airspace for other commercial flights.” 

According to Al Jazeera, President Biden expressed satisfaction regarding his trip to Saudi Arabia and the future of U.S. policy in the region at a summit the following day: “Leaders of six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates – plus Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq [held] talks on regional security and bilateral relations with the US at the summit. Biden was using the summit to lay out his strategy for the Middle East as he closed the final leg of a four-day trip meant to bolster ties in the region. Although US forces continue to target armed groups in the region and remain deployed at bases throughout the Middle East, Biden suggested that he was turning the page after Washington’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘Today, I am proud to be able to say that the eras of land wars in the region, wars that involved huge numbers of American forces, is not under way,’ he said.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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