JEDDAH — U.S. President Joe Biden will discuss regional missile and defense capabilities on Saturday when he meets Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, where he will be seeking to integrate Israel as part of a new axis largely driven by shared concerns over Iran, said a senior administration official.
“We believe there’s great value in including as many of the capabilities in this region as possible and certainly Israel has significant air and missile defense capabilities, as they need to. But we’re having these discussion bilaterally with these nations,” the administration official told reporters.
Biden, on his first Middle East trip as president, has focused on the planned summit with six Gulf states and Egypt, Jordan and Iraq while downplaying meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That encounter has drawn criticism in the United States over human rights abuses.
Biden had promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the global stage over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, but ultimately decided U.S. interests dictated a recalibration, not a rupture, in relations with the world’s top oil exporter and Arab powerhouse.
The U.S. leader said he had raised the Khashoggi killing at the top of his meeting with the Saudi crown prince on Friday and that to be silent on the issue of human rights is “inconsistent with who we are and who I am.”
The crown prince told Biden that Saudi Arabia has acted to prevent a repeat of mistakes like the killing of Khashoggi but that the United States had made similar mistakes, including in Iraq, a Saudi official said.
The official, in a statement sent to Reuters about Friday’s conversation between the two leaders, said the kingdom’s de facto ruler said that trying to impose certain values by force on other countries could backfire.
Prince Mohammed also raised the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during an Israeli raid in 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 prices and other problems related to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and as he encourages efforts to end the Yemen war, where a temporary truce is in place. Washington also wants to curb Iran’s sway in the region and China’s global influence.
The administration official said the United States is hopeful it will see an OPEC production boost in the coming weeks. Biden is expected to press other Gulf producers to pump more oil. The OPEC+ alliance, which includes Russia, meets next on Aug. 3.
The U.S. president, who started his trip to the region with a visit to Israel, held bilateral talks with the leaders of Iraq, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates before taking part in the wider summit where he will “lay out clearly” his vision and strategy for America’s engagement in the Middle East, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Friday.
“He’s intent on ensuring that there is not 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-thinking diplomacy in the interest of a safer, more stable region, according to a statement released after their meeting.
Another senior administration official said Biden would announce that the United States has committed $1 billion in new near and long term food security assistance for the Middle East and North Africa, and that Gulf states would commit $3 billion over the next two years in projects that align with U.S. partnerships in global infrastructure and investment.
Gulf states, which have refused to side with the West against Russia in the Ukraine conflict, are in turn seeking a concrete commitment from the United States to strategic ties that have been strained over perceived U.S. disengagement from the region.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been frustrated by U.S. conditions on arms sales and for being excluded from indirect U.S.-Iran talks aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear pact that they see as flawed for not tackling regional concerns about Tehran’s missile program and behavior.
“The most important demand from the Saudi leadership and other Gulf leaders — and Arabs in general — is clarity of U.S. policy and its direction towards the region,” said Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of Riyadh-based Gulf Research Center.
Israel, which shares their concerns over Iran, encouraged Biden’s trip to the kingdom, hoping it would foster a warming between Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of a wider Arab rapprochement after the UAE and Bahrain forged ties with Israel in U.S.-brokered pacts that received Riyadh’s blessings.
In a sign of progress under what Biden described as a groundbreaking process, Saudi Arabia said on Friday it would open its airspace to all air carriers, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel.
Washington and Riyadh also announced the removal of U.S. and other peacekeepers from Tiran — an island between Saudi Arabia and Egypt in a strategic position leading to the Israeli port of Eilat. The troops have been stationed as part of accords reached in 1978 and which led to a peace deal between Israel and Egypt.
A plan to connect air defense systems could be a hard sell for Arab states that do not have ties with Israel and balk at being part of an alliance seen as against Iran, which has built a strong network of proxies around the region including in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Senior Emirati official Anwar Gargash said on Friday the idea of a so-called Middle East NATO was difficult and that bilateral cooperation was faster and more effective.
The UAE, he said, would not back a confrontational approach: “We are open to cooperation, but not cooperation targeting any other country in the region and I specifically mention Iran.”
(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)