Biden vows US will stay in Middle East to limit Russian and Iranian influence

Completing it first trip to the Middle East since taking officePresident Biden vowed on Saturday that the US would continue to operate in the region to counter Russian and Chinese influence and fight threat from Iran.

Biden laid out his vision for the Middle East during a meeting in the Red Sea coastal city with the leaders of nine Arab countries, a day after he held bilateral talks with the controversial Saudi Arabian leader.

“The United States is clearly following the challenges in the Middle East,” Biden said in a speech that ended a four-day trip to the region that included meetings with best israeli as well as Palestinian officials. “Let me be clear that the United States will remain an active and committed partner in the Middle East. … We will not go away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran. [and] will seek to seize this moment with active, principled American leadership.”

Biden, who was due to return to Washington later Saturday, met with the leaders of the six Gulf states, Egypt and Iraq. and Jordan in a big, round a table in the hotel’s ornate ballroom under a crystal chandelier. Journalists were kept at a distance and not allowed to ask questions.

Throughout Biden’s trip, his first trip to the Middle East as president, administration officials have sought to tie Russia to Iran, hoping to garner more support for a global effort to isolate the Kremlin, which continues to maintain close ties to countries in the Middle East. Neither country has joined the US and its European allies in sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier this week, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan accused Iran of plotting to sell hundreds of combat drones to Russia. On Saturday, he said the administration had evidence that Russian officials had been visiting Iranian airfields to observe demonstrations of the technology.

The White House released pictures of the delegation that it said were taken in June.

“What’s going on in the Middle East, I mean, Russia is actually betting on Iran,” an administration official said Saturday. The official, on condition of anonymity, added: “We are betting on a more integrated, more stable, more peaceful and prosperous Middle East region.”

Biden used the trip to highlight the gradual opening of ties between Israel and some Arab countries that did not officially recognize the country until recently.. Washington is trying to create an integrated air defense system that would include Israel and several Arab countries as a bulwark against Iran.

Biden also made the case for increased oil production, especially in Saudi Arabia, among the world’s largest oil producers. However, even if Saudi Arabia adds one or two million barrels of oil per day, this is unlikely to affect US gas station prices.

The most controversial part of the trip, however, was Biden’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is implicated in the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi-based U.S. journalist. Mohammed has also been heavily criticized by human rights activists for his crackdown on dissent from women, minorities and activists.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden scolded the Saudi leadership and said he hoped to make the country “rogue” over the Khashoggi murder and other human rights violations. Upon taking office, Biden toned down those criticisms. Caught between his rhetoric and the need to lower oil prices, Biden tried to ease tensions with Saudi Arabia by meeting with Mohammed, presenting him as part of a larger conference with Arab leaders and as an attempt to improve security in the region.

Hoping to avoid a photo of him shaking hands with Mohammed, Biden gave him the first push instead on the eve of their meeting on Friday.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Biden with a punch.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomes President Biden with a punch after he arrives in Saudi Arabia on Friday.

(Saudi Press Agency via Associated Press)

bride Khashoggi, Human rights activists and the publisher of the Washington Post still criticized Biden. “The punching between President Biden and Mohammed bin Salman was worse than a handshake — it was embarrassing,” said Fred Ryan, publisher of the newspaper where Khashoggi worked.

Biden said on Friday that Mohammed told him he was not personally responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. The President stated that he told Mohammed that he thought he was a prince.

Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family, was killed and his body dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a Saudi punitive group. US intelligence agencies concluded that the detachment was sent by the Crown Prince.

Biden again did not mention Khashoggi in his public appearances on Saturday, but he appears to have alluded to him in a recent public meeting with other Arab leaders.

Sitting next to Mohammed, Biden devoted part of his speech to the importance of tolerance for dissent as a way to unlock innovation and build accountable institutions.

“I have received a lot of criticism over the years,” Biden said. “It’s not fun.”

“No country does everything right all the time, even most of the time, including the United States,” he added. “But our people are our strength. Our countries are confidently learning from their mistakes and getting stronger.”

Birman reported from Jeddah and Wilkinson from Washington.