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The Latest: Saudi Arabia downplays normalization with Israel

July 16, 2022 GMT
President Joe Biden meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Saturday, July 16, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Saturday, July 16, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Saturday, July 16, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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President Joe Biden meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Saturday, July 16, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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President Joe Biden meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Saturday, July 16, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The Latest on U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to the Mideast:

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat on Saturday downplayed talk of normalization with Israel after the kingdom opened its airspace to Israeli commercial flights and hammered out a complex deal over islands in the Red Sea that required Israeli assent.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Farhan bin Faisal spoke to reporters after a four-day visit by President Joe Biden to the region, including two days that the U.S. leader spent in Saudi Arabia, where he held talks with the Saudi king and the crown prince, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, and took part in a summit of regional leaders.

Prince Farhan stressed there was no discussion at the summit of any military cooperation with Israel or talk of a so-called “Arab NATO.”

“There is no discussion about a defensive alliance with Israel,” he repeated.

Ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia have been inching closer amid shared concerns over Iran. The kingdom’s public stance is that it has long welcomed normalization with Israel so long as Palestinian rights and demands for statehood are guaranteed.

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

Biden meets with Arab Gulf countries to counter Iran threat

In West Bank, Biden embraces ‘two states for two peoples’

As Biden visits, a look at those targeted in Saudi Arabia

Israeli politics a backdrop to Biden’s visit to the Mideast

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TEHRAN, Iran — Dozens of Iranian hard-liners rallied on Saturday at a square in downtown Tehran, burning U.S. and Israeli flags and denouncing President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East.

The small crowd also erupted in chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” typical at anti-American rallies in Iran. The demonstrators also protested against the normalization of ties between Israel and several Arab nations that started under the previous U.S. administration.

Biden said at a wider regional summit in Saudi Arabia on Saturday that the United States would not walk away from Middle East’s security and leave a vacuum that Russia, China or Iran could try and fill.

Separately, Iran announced on Saturday that it was imposing sanctions on 61 Americans, including Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, and John Bolton, the former national security advisor, over their support for foreign-based dissident Iranian groups.

Iran has in recent years imposed several times such symbolic measures on Americans who Tehran says are acting against Iran. In June, an Iranian court also ordered the U.S. government to pay over $4 billion to the families of Iranian nuclear scientists who have been killed in targeted attacks in recent years.

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Joe Biden and Jordan’s King Abullah met on Saturday in Saudi Arabia, with the White House announcing that the United States has committed to a new assistance package for Jordan of no less than $1.45 billion a year.

The announcement was made after the two leaders met on the sidelines of a wider regional summit in which Biden vowed that the U.S. will not walk away from Middle East’s security and is not going to leave a vacuum for Russia, China or Iran to try and fill.

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Jordan, which hosts Palestinian and Syrian refugees, shares borders with Israel and the West Bank. Its stability is seen as crucial to the region, but its economy has struggled under the weight of inflation and from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has faced public protests, and the king’s brother, Prince Hamza, is under house arrest following a public rebuke of the country’s leadership.

In 2017, the U.S. committed to no less than $1.27 billion per year in bilateral foreign assistance to Jordan, beginning in 2018 and ending in 2022. The new annual package to Jordan is an adjustment of that annual U.S. support for the country.

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Joe Biden says he’s clear-eyed about challenges in the Middle East and the United States intends to stay engaged in the region.

Speaking Saturday in Saudi Arabia at a summit of Gulf leaders, as well as leaders from Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, Biden said: “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.” He added that “the United States is going to remain an active engaged partner in the Middle East.”

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Biden is outlining the principles of his strategy for the region, focusing on regional cooperation to stand up to threats.

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Joe Biden has invited the Abu Dhabi ruler who steers policy in the United Arab Emirates to visit the White House before the end of the year.

The two met on Saturday ahead of a wider summit in Saudi Arabia.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed was unanimously appointed as the autocratic nation’s president in May following the death of his brother.

Even as crown prince of Abu Dhabi, he had long been seen as the force behind the UAE’s “Little Sparta” reputation for its outsized influence in policies that stretch from the Horn of Africa, through North Africa and beyond. Under his influence, the UAE became the first Arab state in more than two decades to normalize relations with Israel.

Much like Saudi Arabia, though, relations between the Biden administration and Abu Dhabi have been strained. The UAE has called on Biden to reverse a decision he made early in his presidency to de-list Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terror group. The UAE has been a party to the war in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians and spawned a humanitarian disaster.

Abu Dhabi was targeted by rebel Yemeni missile and drone strikes earlier this year. The attacks, which killed three migrant workers and targeted an area near a base that hosts U.S. forces, rattled the small country’s image as a bastion of stability and economic prosperity in the region.

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Emirati officials were reportedly disappointed by the Biden administration’s response to the attacks. They are also wary of U.S. efforts to revive Iran’s nuclear accord and frustrated by some conditions on U.S. weapons sales. While the UAE is the first foreign customer of the Lockheed Martin THAAD anti-missile system, it has long sought U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-based DAWN rights group said one of its board members, who was also a close friend and lawyer to slain Saudi critic Jamal Khahshoggi, was detained while in transit in Dubai and taken to Abu Dhabi. The group says Asim Ghafoor, a U.S. citizen, has been detained since Thursday on murky charges of “money laundering.”

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi citizens will soon be able to obtain 10-year visitor visas, double the current validity, in an agreement during U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia announced Saturday the agreement extends the validity of visitor visas for Saudi citizens from five years to a decade as of August 1.

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The announcement said travel contributes significantly to both of countries’ economies and strengthens ties between citizens.

Biden is on a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia that began on Friday with a meeting with King Salman. That was followed by a highly-watched face-to-face meeting with the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The two fist-bumped one another as they met for the first time during Biden’s presidency.

Biden said he raised the issue of human rights in his meeting with the prince, but stressed that the visit’s aim is to reassert U.S influence in the region.

The Saudis say 18 cooperation agreements and memorandums were signed by the two delegations late Friday, including an accord with NASA allowing Saudi Arabia to undertake the joint exploration of the moon and Mars in cooperation with the American space agency.

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — U.S. President Joe Biden met with Egypt’s president in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since Biden took office in 2021.

Biden was heard thanking President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for Egypt’s role in a ceasefire to Israel’s war with Hamas last year in the Gaza Strip, an acknowledgement of Cairo’s role in the region.

Egypt’s president, who came to power following mass protests and a military takeover that ousted the divisive Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, is facing an economic crisis as inflation from rising fuel and food prices hits the Arab world’s most populous nation particularly hard. Around a third of Egypt’s 103 million people live in poverty.

Although the former military strongman has been credited with stabilizing Egypt’s economy following several years of political turmoil, the country is among the world’s largest importers of wheat, with much of that from now-blocked Ukrainian ports.

Meanwhile, el-Sissi’s government has not hesitated to deploy brute force while jailing thousands of people, mainly Islamists, but also secular activists in an effort to quash dissent.

In recent months, his government released hundreds of detainees and embarked on a so-called national dialogue with various groups, but the government continues to hold many high profile detainees, including pro-democracy activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah. Egyptian security forces have been accused of torturing detainees, including concerns economist Ayman Hadhoud was among those beaten to death while in police detention this year.

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Joe Biden began his final day in Saudi Arabia by meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who survived an assassination attempt with explosive drones last year.

Some in the country have blamed the attack Iranian-backed factions. It came amid soaring tensions and a stand-off between Iraqi security forces and pro-Iran Shiite militias over election results.

Biden said he wanted to support Iraq’s democracy.

“I want the press and you to know we want to be (as) helpful as we can in doing that,” he said.

Al-Kadhimi spoke about the “strategic, friendly relationship” between the U.S. and Iraq, and he thanked the U.S. for providing support to combat terrorist groups.

An estimated 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq to support the country’s fight against the Islamic State.

Biden is in Jeddah attending a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The leaders of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan are also attending.