Biden heads to Saudi Arabia amid tensions

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President Joe Biden will discuss energy supply, human rights, and security cooperation in Saudi Arabia on a trip designed to reset the US relationship with a country he once pledged to make a "pariah" on the world stage.

Biden will hold meetings with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, along with other government officials, a senior Biden administration official told reporters.

The visit will be closely watched for body language and rhetoric. US intelligence concluded that MbS directly approved the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, while the crown prince denies having a role in the killing.

White House advisers have declined to say whether Biden will shake hands with the prince, the kingdom's de facto ruler.

"The president's going to meet about a dozen leaders and he'll greet them as he usually does," the administration official said.

At the start of Biden's trip to the Middle East, officials said he would avoid close contacts, such as shaking hands, as a precaution against COVID-19. But the president ended up engaging in hand-shaking in Israel.

Biden said on Thursday his position on Khashoggi's murder was "absolutely" clear. Biden made his "pariah" comment less than two years ago after the journalist's killing and while campaigning for president.

Biden said he would raise human rights in Saudi Arabia, but he did not say specifically if he would broach the Khashoggi murder with its leaders.

The US is eager to see Saudi Arabia and its OPEC partners pump more oil to help bring down the high cost of petrol and ease the highest US inflation in four decades.

"The Saudis definitely are intending to boost capacity and with oil prices so high they have the wherewithal to do that, particularly as they see production constraints elsewhere in a market that is still growing," said Daniel Yergin, S&P Global vice chairman and an expert in world energy markets.

Biden will encourage peace and press for a more integrated Middle East during his trip, the administration official said. Topics would include strengthening a truce in the war in Yemen, "balance" in energy markets and technological cooperation in 5G and 6G.

Ahead of the visit, Saudi Arabia said it would open its airspace to all air carriers, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel, in what Biden described as a historic and important step towards building a more integrated and stable Middle East.

"Thanks to months of steady diplomacy between my administration and Saudi Arabia, it is finally a reality," Biden said in a statement. "I will do all that I can, through direct diplomacy and leader-to-leader engagement, to keep advancing this groundbreaking process."

The US-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords established a new axis in the region, where Gulf states share Israel's concerns about Iran's nuclear and missiles programs and proxy network. Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Muslim Iran have for years vied for regional influence but launched direct talks last year in an effort to contain tensions.

During his visit to Israel on the first leg of the Middle East trip, Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a joint pledge to deny Iran nuclear weapons, which the Islamic Republic denies seeking.

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