This is a great photo. The American president and the man he calls an outcast, slam his fists into the golden beauty of the royal palace in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia was always a controversial stop on Joe Biden’s first trip to the Middle East as US president. Just four weeks ago, Mr. Biden said he would not meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit here. In his White House compound during his first few weeks on the job, he refused to speak to the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Mr Biden made the “pariah” comment on the US election campaign trail back in 2019.
It came after the CIA concluded the crown prince had approved the bru
Relationships are frozen. Then came the announcement of the President’s visit. The stage had long been set for Air Force One, roaring loud and clear across Jeddah, filling the silent sky with the sound of powerful jet engines. The flags were flown, the green and white of Saudi Arabia set against the stars and stripes of the USA. They took the main road from the airport to the royal palace, walking through streets that were closed and cleaned. Police cars, their lights shining in the sun, were ready every few meters to maintain the tightest security. The Saudis know the world will be watching this meeting, They want the rest of the Middle East and the international community to sit up and take note of the favor the American president has done them. In the hours following the talks between the two leaders here in Jeddah, I sat down with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir.
I pushed him to explain why – despite such modernisation in the kingdom – things like free speech, activism and dissent against the regime are still frowned upon and, ultimately, punished.
“What you may call a dissident, we call a terrorist. What you may call somebody expressing their opinion, we call incitement,” he replied.
“When somebody gives money to a group that murders people, is that expressing their opinion or is this funding murder?”
“That’s not activism, and so they’re charged with these issues, and they’re brought before the courts. But they’re presented outside Saudi Arabia as if they’re activists, or as if they’re moderates wanting to express their opinion.”
And what about the pariah comment? Why did he think Mr Biden had changed his mind now on US-Saudi relations?
“What happens in the political campaign generally doesn’t survive the reality of being in office. President Trump said things about Saudi Arabia during the campaign, but then when he was in office we had a great relationship with him. What happens in campaigns, is what I call happening during the silly season.”
Mr Biden insisted after his meeting with the crown prince that he had raised the issue of Khashoggi’s killing, and his understanding of Mohammed bin Salman’s part in it.
Which brings us back to the photograph. Deeds versus words. A picture that will define this visit – everything the Saudis could have hoped for.
It told a tale of a nation rehabilitated; a strategic partnership renewed. Regardless of what was discussed in the meeting, whatever successes or failures there were, the world has an enduring image to remember it by. One which illustrates a direct course change by Mr Biden.
So how can the men and women of this kingdom hear it? How did they perceive the president’s visit and their changing relationship with the US? In the cool Mall of Arabia – a refuge from the stifling temperatures outside – I tried to figure it out. Many people looked at the glittering shops and ate cave food. Many of them did not want to talk about the visit. Some say they just don’t care. But those who do are united by one concern: travel. “I haven’t visited the United States in maybe ten years,” someone told me. “There are always problems getting visas.”
“I hope the meeting will return the communication between us. America has always been a very good ally. But things haven’t been going well lately. I hope this can fix any problems and make everything even better than before.”
“If we can travel and study there, it will be good”, explained Shatha al-Jamale. “If the relationship between our two countries is good, we won’t be afraid if we go there. Sometimes Americans are afraid if we go there, some of them have a bad idea about my country, so I think this meeting is important for them to know that we are safe.”
Critics say that the first leg of Mr Biden’s Middle East trip – to Israel and the occupied West Bank – didn’t deliver any significant achievements.
If he can persuade some of the world’s largest oil-producing countries to pump more of it and help lower the price, that will be seen as a victory by US voters back home.
But so far, there’s little sign he’ll leave with the prize that so many people say he came here for.
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