Few visible wins as Biden ends Saudi visit

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President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have taken a step to mending their troubled relationship with a fist bump but the US leader has left the kingdom with few big successes and doubts as to whether the visit was worth it.

Biden's four-day trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, his first to the Middle East as president, aimed to reset ties with the Gulf Arab oil giant, demonstrate US commitment to the region and counter the rising influence of Iran, Russia and China.

But thorny optics overshadowed the Saudi leg as Biden avoided appearing to embrace a crown prince implicated by US intelligence in the brutal 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a charge Saudi authorities deny.

Biden said he confronted Prince Mohammed, known as MbS, over the killing.

MbS remained unbowed, telling Biden the United States had also made mistakes.

Though Biden left the Middle East without securing an immediate pledge by Saudi Arabia to boost oil output or public support for US efforts for a regional security axis that would include Israel, the trip was not a wash.

Biden's fist bump with Prince Mohammed in front of the royal palace in Jeddah will serve as the defining image of the trip but it was months in the making.

White House officials were divided over rewarding MbS with a visit and agonised over how it would look.

In the end, they decided that keeping strategic ties with Saudi Arabia that have weathered 80 years was important for US interests and would help the two sides turn the page.

Officials in Riyadh took several important steps to pave a path for the visit including backing a United Nations-brokered truce in the Yemen conflict - a big victory for Biden, who pulled US support for Saudi-led offensive operations.

It also helped accelerate already approved boosts in oil production through OPEC+.

"The summit of the nine Arab leaders is a clear accomplishment as is the backing for the truce in Yemen. But these accomplishments have come at the cost of the fist bump," said Bruce Riedel, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Biden came to Saudi Arabia hoping to convince the OPEC heavyweight to boost oil production but the kingdom held firm on its strategy that it must operate within the framework of the OPEC+ alliance, which includes Russia, and not act unilaterally.

High petrol prices have fuelled a surge in inflation in the United States and globally, dragging down Biden's poll numbers as he heads into critical congressional elections in November.

However, White House officials are confident their diplomatic efforts will help shape the conversation when OPEC+ members hold their next meeting.

"All eyes are on the August 3 OPEC+ meeting. If the Saudis and the UAE want to raise output, they will do it via OPEC+. But we have to keep in mind the demand picture is softening. I'm not sure these countries are convinced the market needs more crude supply," said Ben Cahill, an energy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The trip suggested a small warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel after Riyadh officials said they would open the country's airspace to all air carriers, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel.

There was also a US-brokered deal between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia under which a small US-led international peacekeeping contingent would quit the strategic island of Tiran, control of which was ceded to Saudi Arabia by Egypt in 2017.

The US and Israel hope those moves and the summit could help build momentum toward Israel's further integration into the region, including with Saudi Arabia.

But the Saudi foreign minister poured cold water over any imminent normalisation with Israel, saying this was not a precursor to further steps.

He said Saudi Arabia was not part of any discussions on a Gulf-Israeli defence alliance to counter Iran.

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