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Thursday October 06, 2022

S Arabia lifts Israel overflight curbs as Biden arrives

US President Joe Biden met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sealing a retreat from his campaign pledge to turn the kingdom into a “pariah” over alleged human rights abuses

By News Desk
July 16, 2022
US President Joe Biden meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on July 15, 2022. Photo: Twitter
US President Joe Biden meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on July 15, 2022. Photo: Twitter

JEDDAH: US President Joe Biden landed Friday in Saudi Arabia and met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sealing a retreat from his campaign pledge to turn the kingdom into a “pariah” over alleged human rights abuses.

Saudi state media showed images of Air Force One at the airport in the coastal city of Jeddah after a flight from Israel, making Biden the first US leader to fly directly from the Jewish state to an Arab nation that does not recognise it.

In 2017, his predecessor, Donald Trump, made the journey in reverse. Biden, wearing sunglasses, emerged from Air Force One to walk down a purple carpet and be greeted by Mecca province governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal and Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.

Later, state television Al-Ekhbariya showed Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto leader, greeting Biden with a fist bump and escorting him into Jeddah’s Al-Salam palace. Biden met Saudi King Salman, 86, then he and Prince Mohammed sat across from one another at a large conference table for a “working session”, flanked by top officials.

“At the top of the meeting” with the Saudi Crown Prince, Biden said Friday he raised the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “What happened to Khashoggi was outrageous... I just made it clear if anything occurs like that again they will get that response and much more,” Biden said after meeting Prince Mohammed, who US intelligence officials believe ordered the operation that led to Khashoggi´s death.

After taking office last year, Biden’s administration released US intelligence findings that Prince Mohammed “approved” an operation targeting journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose gruesome killing in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate sparked global outrage.

Saudi officials deny Prince Mohammed’s involvement and say Khashoggi’s death resulted from a “rogue” operation. But it marred the crown prince’s reputation as a potential reformer. Biden now appears ready to re-engage with a country that has been a key strategic ally of the US for decades, a major supplier of oil and an avid buyer of weapons.

Washington wants the world’s largest exporter of crude to open the floodgates to bring down soaring gasoline prices, which threaten Democratic chances in November mid-term elections.

US officials are also touting efforts to promote integration between Israel and Arab nations. Saudi Arabia has refused to join the US-brokered Abraham Accords under which Israel normalised ties with the kingdom’s neighbours, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in 2020.

Riyadh has repeatedly said it would stick to the decades-old Arab League position of not establishing official ties with Israel until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.

But it is showing signs of greater openness towards Israel, and announced Friday it was lifting overflight restrictions on aircraft travelling to and from Israel, a move Biden hailed as “historic”.

The decision means flights from Asia to Israel will no longer need to make lengthy detours. The US has encouraged Israel and Arab countries to bolster their cooperation to better counter Iran’s regional influence.

Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid hailed the decision as “only the first step” towards bolstering ties with Arab nations.

On Saturday (today) Biden is due to meet Arab leaders from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq to discuss volatile oil prices and Washington’s role in the region.

Jeddah marks the final stop on Biden’s Middle East tour, following talks on Friday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and meetings with Israeli officials a day earlier.

With Palestinians banned by Israel from political activity in Jerusalem, the US president travelled to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank to meet Abbas. Standing alongside him, Biden reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There “must be a political horizon that the Palestinian people can actually see”, Biden said. “I know that the goal of the two states seems so far away,” Biden added.

Abbas said he was “taking steps” to improve relations with Washington and aimed to see the US consulate to Palestinians in Jerusalem — which Trump closed — reopen. With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations moribund since 2014, the US delegation has been focusing on economic measures.

Biden made clear on Thursday he had no plans to reverse the controversial move by Trump to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which infuriated Palestinians who see its eastern sector as the seat of their future state.

Biden was greeted in Bethlehem with a billboard reading “Justice for Shireen”, referring to Shireen Abu Akleh, the veteran Palestinian-American journalist shot dead in May while covering an Israeli army raid in the West Bank.

The family requested to meet Biden during his visit, but his administration has instead invited them to Washington.

“I think if President Biden (can) find an hour and a half to go and attend a sport activity, he should have respected the family and given them 10 minutes to listen to them,” said Samer Sinijlawi, chairman of a Palestinian nonprofit, the Jerusalem Development Fund, after Biden on Thursday attended a ceremony for Jewish athletes.

Speaking alongside Abbas, Biden said the US “will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting” of Abu Akleh’s death.

According to Israeli media, an important focal point for U.S. President Biden’s visit to the Middle East this week is pursuing positive relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, within the spheres of both security and diplomacy.

Several secret meetings have been tracked at the end of the Larnaca airport in Cyprus, for example. Executive jets identified with Israeli diplomatic flights would land in Cyprus at the same time as a flight by private planes owned by the Saudi government. They would park next to one another on the sidelines of the northeast end of the airport, and after a number of minutes, the Saudi planes would take off for the kingdom’s capital, Riyadh, where it stayed until the evening and would then return to Cyprus. Five minutes later, the Israeli executive jet would take off back to Ben-Gurion airport.

The only non-Gulf airline that has received permission to fly over Saudi Arabia to Israel was Air India, which in 2018 launched a route between Delhi and Ben-Gurion airport. These flights take just five-and-a-half hours while Israeli flights to the Indian city of Mumbai take about seven-and-a-half hours.

The itinerary was choreographed by the White House to amplify the chief accomplishment of Biden’s trip so far — an announcement by Saudi Arabia that it will open its airspace to all carriers, including those from Israel.

The decision means flights from Asia to Israel will no longer need to make lengthy detours. The US has encouraged Israel and Arab countries to bolster their cooperation to better counter Iran’s regional influence.

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