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Biden vows expanded U.S. role in Mideast as controversial trip ends

President Biden speaks during the Jiddah Security and Development Summit in Saudi Arabia on July 16, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Capping a four-day trip to the Middle East, President Biden laid out his vision of a future for the region on Saturday, a framework he hopes amplifies American values and investment in this part of the world — and blunts the influence of Russia and China.

The day full of meetings with leaders of Iraq, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other regional powers was in part an attempt to change a narrative that has been dominated by Biden’s interactions with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of the country who has been accused of human rights abuses.

“The United States is clear-eyed about the challenges in the Middle East and about where we have the greatest capacity to help drive positive outcomes,” Biden said during his final remarks to a coalition of leaders from the Persian Gulf countries and some neighbors. “We will not walk away and leave the vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.”

Biden says he confronted Saudis directly on Khashoggi

But ultimately, it remains unclear whether Biden’s gambit will deliver the results he is seeking. By the time Biden left the Middle East on Saturday afternoon, much of the policy announcements the White House touted were either already in motion or incremental.

For Mohammed, who grinned widely as he chaired the leaders’ summit, Biden’s trip delivered what he desperately wanted: a full welcome back to the world stage. For Biden, meanwhile, it could be weeks or months to see whether the renewed ties with Saudi Arabia will fulfill his domestic objectives and outweigh the fierce blowback he faced for taking the trip.

In more than four hours of meetings, Biden tried to cover a lot of ground: extending the Yemeni cease-fire; increasing regional food security; addressing the ripples of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on energy markets; implementing stronger protections for human rights in the region; and addressing the threat of an Iran feared to be seeking nuclear weapons.

To that end, Biden announced $1 billion for food security assistance for the Middle East and North Africa, regions that face acute hunger in part because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one of the world’s top exporters of wheat before the war. Advisers said the president stressed to his counterparts that he hoped their countries would be partners for decades and focused conversations on diplomacy and deterrence to avoid future conflicts, noting that he was the first U.S. president to visit the Middle East since Sept. 11, 2001, without American troops being involved in a major ground war in the region.

As gas prices rose sharply in recent months, Biden has also faced immense domestic political pressure to do something to lower prices at the pump — and aides have hoped the president’s trip would lead to Saudi leaders’ increasing production and bring oil costs down.

There were no such announcements during the trip, however, although Biden said Friday that “based on our discussions today, I expect we’ll see further steps in the coming weeks.”

Getting the diverse group of Middle Eastern leaders to buy into his blueprint is vital for the administration. If the United States doesn’t try to exert influence, Biden and his aides have said repeatedly, China and Russia will rush in — and shape the future of the region.

“The bottom line is: This trip is about once again positioning America in this region for the future,” Biden said in a speech late Friday.

Biden’s trip comes as he is limping at home. His approval ratings have plummeted, his domestic agenda remains hobbled and members of his own party have asked whether he even should seek a second term. The struggles at home also raise questions about whether he will be able to see any of his promises made in the region through to completion.

For weeks, Biden has unsuccessfully stressed that Saturday’s sit-downs should not be overshadowed by his meeting with Mohammed, who is accused of being behind the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Still, the trip to Saudi Arabia so far has been marked by the figurative chess match and literal fist bump between the two leaders. U.S. intelligence officials say Mohammed orchestrated Khashoggi’s killing, and Biden had said Saudi Arabia’s government should be a pariah. But Mohammed leads an oil-rich country that the administration sees as vital to stabilizing the region and lowering gas prices, and so Biden reluctantly agreed to meet with him.

Biden says he confronted Saudis directly on Khashoggi

All told, he spent three hours with the crown prince, participating in a bilateral meeting, and shaking hands with an array of Saudi officials. At the end of the night, Biden said he took a hard line on human rights despite the apparent show of comity. Saudi officials later described an exchange that was much less confrontational than the president’s description.

The fist bump, which was captured by Saudi state media and quickly disseminated around the world, became a powerful symbol and a lightning rod for Biden. The president, who has long made clear his discomfort over the one-on-one meeting, was accused of bestowing legitimacy on the Saudi government, which has a long track record of violating human rights.

In a meeting with reporters Friday night, Adel al-Jubeir, a Saudi diplomat and former foreign minister, said the crown prince had assured Biden that Saudi Arabia had conducted its own investigation in Khashoggi’s killing and that the perpetrators had been arrested.

“We had an investigation. People were put on trial. They were convicted, it went to appeal. The decision went to the Supreme Court and it was affirmed. And we have individuals who are paying the price in jail. This is what every civilized country does,” he said. “We took responsibility for it as a country.”

Biden’s interactions with Mohammed on Sunday were more abbreviated. Before heading into a meeting of the full coalition, the leaders posed for a group photo, a tradition at multilateral gatherings. Mohammed, the host of the day’s events, escorted Biden in, and after the photo, the crown prince led Biden into the meeting room, chatting as they walked a few feet ahead of the other leaders.

Yet Biden’s meetings with Mohammed were not the only ones shadowed by concerns about human rights.

Before the president’s meeting with the leader of the United Arab Emirates, the country arrested Asim Ghafoor, an American citizen who previously served as a lawyer for Khashoggi.

Ghafoor is a board member of Democracy for the Arab World Now, which was founded by Khashoggi, and it issued a statement that the arrest was based on “trumped up” charges.

“We are outraged at the unjustified detention of our board member and extremely concerned for his health and physical security given the well-documented record of abuse in the UAE, including torture and inhuman treatment,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of DAWN, said in a statement Friday.

“We urge the Biden administration to secure the release of an arbitrarily detained American lawyer before agreeing to meet with the UAE’s leader [Mohammed bin Zayed] in Jiddah tomorrow,” it added.

DAWN said Ghafoor was arrested in connection with a money laundering case while calling his case “politically motivated.” The Abu Dhabi government media office did not immediately reply to questions about the nature of the charges against Ghafoor.

A State Department official said that the United States was aware of Ghafoor’s arrest and that consular officers have visited him. A senior administration official said Biden also was aware of the arrest but declined to specify whether the president had raised the issue in his meeting Saturday.

But during their meeting, Biden did invite the UAE leader to visit the United States.

“Challenges you face today only make it a heck of a lot more important we spend time together,” Biden said.

Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.