JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, July 16 (Reuters) – US President Joe Biden is set to discuss regional missile and defense capabilities on Saturday when he meets Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, where he will seek to include Israel as part of a new axis which is largely driven by shared concerns about Iran, a senior government official said.
“We believe there is great value in bringing as many capabilities into this region as possible, and certainly Israel has significant air and missile defense capabilities that they need. But we are having these talks bilaterally with these nations,” the government official told reporters.
On his first trip to the Middle East as president, Biden has focused on the planned summit with six Gulf states plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, and downplayed the meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This encounter drew criticism in the United States for human rights violations.
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Biden had vowed to make Saudi Arabia an “outcast” on the global stage over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, but ultimately decided that US interests required a recalibration, rather than a rupture, in ties with the United States world’s largest oil exporter and Arab dictated powerhouse.
The US leader said he raised the assassination of Khashoggi at the forefront of his meeting with the Saudi crown prince on Friday and that the silence on the human rights issue was “inconsistent with who we are and who I am”. Continue reading
The crown prince told Biden that Saudi Arabia acted to prevent a repeat of mistakes like the Khashoggi assassination, but that the United States made similar mistakes, including in Iraq, a Saudi official said.
The official, in a statement sent to Reuters about the talk between the two leaders on Friday, said the kingdom’s de facto ruler had said trying to impose certain values by force on other countries could backfire.
Prince Mohammed also addressed the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during an Israeli raid on the West Bank and mentioned Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Biden needs the help of OPEC giant Saudi Arabia at a time of high crude oil prices and other issues related to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and while promoting efforts to end the Yemen war, which is on a temporary ceasefire. Washington also wants to curb Iran’s influence in the region and China’s global influence.
The administration official said the United States is hopeful that it will see a surge in OPEC production in the coming weeks. Biden is expected to push other Gulf producers to pump more oil. The OPEC+ alliance, which includes Russia, meets next on August 3.
The US President, who began his trip to the region with a visit to Israel, held bilateral talks with leaders of Iraq, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates before attending the broader summit, where he presented his vision ” “Explain clearly” strategy for America’s engagement in the Middle East, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Friday.
“He wants to make sure there isn’t a vacuum in the Middle East for China and Russia to fill,” Sullivan said.
The president expressed his appreciation for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s forward-looking diplomacy in the interests of a safer and more stable region, according to a statement released after their meeting.
Another senior government official said Biden will announce that the United States has pledged $1 billion in new short- and long-term food security assistance to the Middle East and North Africa and that the Gulf States will pledge $3 billion over the next two years for Would provide projects that would align with US partnerships in global infrastructure and investments.
For their part, the Gulf states, which have refused to side with the West against Russia in the Ukraine conflict, are calling for a concrete US commitment to strategic relations that have been strained due to perceived US withdrawal from the region.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been frustrated by US terms on arms sales and being barred from indirect US-Iran talks aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear pact they see as flawed because of regional concerns over the missile program and – behavior of Tehran have not been addressed.
“The most important demand of the Saudi leadership and other Gulf leaders – and Arabs in general – is clarity about US policy and its direction towards the region,” said Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Riyadh-based Gulf Research Center.
Israel, which shares its concerns about Iran, encouraged Biden’s trip to the kingdom in hopes it would encourage warming between Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of a broader Arab rapprochement after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in by the US brokered pacts had established ties with Israel Riyadh’s blessing.
In a sign of progress in what Biden called a groundbreaking process, Saudi Arabia said Friday it would open its airspace to all airlines, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel.
Washington and Riyadh also announced the withdrawal of US and other peacekeeping forces from Tiran – an island between Saudi Arabia and Egypt in a strategic position leading to the Israeli port of Eilat. The troops were deployed as part of a 1978 accord that resulted in a peace accord between Israel and Egypt.
A plan to link air defense systems could benefit Arab states that have no ties to Israel and are reluctant to be part of an alliance seen as anti-Iran, which has a strong network of proxies in the region, including Iraq. has built up to be difficult to sell. Lebanon and Yemen.
Senior Emirati official Anwar Gargash said on Friday the idea of a so-called Middle East NATO is difficult and that bilateral cooperation would be faster and more effective. Continue reading
The UAE, he said, would not support a confrontational approach: “We are open to cooperation, but not cooperation aimed at any other country in the region, and I specifically mention Iran.”
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Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan in Jeddah and John Irish in Paris Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Michael Georgy Editing by Daniel Wallis, Frances Kerry and Jane Merriman
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