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Biden: Upcoming flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia a ‘small symbol’ of warming ties

In Washington Post article, US leader says he’ll be first American president to fly directly from Tel Aviv to Jeddah during official trip to region

US President Joe Biden arrives at Andrews Air Force Base after delivering remarks in Cleveland about the American Recovery Act, July 6, 2022, in Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden arrives at Andrews Air Force Base after delivering remarks in Cleveland about the American Recovery Act, July 6, 2022, in Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden said he will be the first American president to fly from Israel directly to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia this week when he is set to visit those countries on an official trip to the region, in a “small symbol” of the warming ties between Israel and the Arab world and “steps toward normalization.”

In a Washington Post opinion article on Saturday titled “Why I’m Going To Saudi Arabia,” Biden said he will make the trip from Israel to Jeddah, where “leaders from across the region will gather, pointing to the possibility of a more stable and integrated Middle East, with the United States playing a vital leadership role.”

The US leader said he will be “the first president to fly from Israel to Jiddah [Jeddah]… [in] a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand.” (George W. Bush flew from Israel to Riyadh in May 2008; Donald Trump flew from Saudi Arabia to Israel in 2017.)

Biden is expected in Israel on Wednesday for a packed two-day visit that will also include a trip to the Palestinian Authority, followed by a visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday for a Saturday meeting with regional Mideast leaders as part of the GCC+3 summit (the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE along with Iraq, Egypt and Jordan).

In Saudi Arabia, Biden is expected to press for increased Saudi oil production in the hope of taming spiraling fuel costs and inflation at home, a marked departure from his pledge during his election campaign to treat Riyadh like a “pariah” over its human rights record and the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi — a Saudi-born US resident known for writing critical articles about the kingdom’s rulers for The Washington Post.

US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Collage/AP)

US intelligence findings released by the Biden administration identified Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, as the mastermind of the operation.

But global developments over the past year — namely Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — have led Biden to shift his approach to the Gulf kingdom, given its centrality to the oil market and potential for furthering Israel’s integration into the region.

Last month, Biden had sought to distance himself from the upcoming encounter in Jeddah with MBS at GCC+3 , stressing to reporters he was going to meet with King Salman and his team.

But the White House confirmed earlier this week that he will meet MBS as part of that larger delegation during the trip.

During the visit, Biden said he will also be the first president to visit the Middle East since 9/11 “without US troops engaged in a combat mission there,” adding that throughout the journey, he will hold in his thoughts “the millions of Americans who served in the region” including his son Beau, “and the 7,054 who died in conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001.”

Beau Biden had served in Iraq and died of brain cancer in 2015 at the age of 46.

Joe Biden, right, is seen with his son Beau Biden in Denver, Colorado, on August 25, 2008. (AFP/Paul J. RICHARDS)

In his op-ed Saturday, Biden said the region had changed, and a “secure and integrated Middle East benefits Americans in many ways.”

“Its waterways are essential to global trade and the supply chains we rely on. Its energy resources are vital for mitigating the impact on global supplies of Russia’s war in Ukraine. And a region that’s coming together through diplomacy and cooperation — rather than coming apart through conflict — is less likely to give rise to violent extremism that threatens our homeland or new wars that could place new burdens on US military forces and their families.”

The US leader said the Middle East he will be visiting this week “is more stable and secure than the one my administration inherited 18 months ago.” Without naming him, Biden said that during the administration of former president Donald Trump, attacks against US troops and diplomats in the region increased, the war in Yemen escalated, and Iran broke ahead rapid acceleration of its nuclear program after the US “reneged on a nuclear deal that was working,” a reference to the 2015 nuclear accords between Tehran and six world powers including the US under the Obama administration.

Illustrative: Iranian diplomats and officials from the P5+1 powers meet in Vienna to discuss the 2015 nuclear accord on April 25, 2017. (AFP/Joe Klamar)

Biden said he worked together with leaders across the region, including the king of Saudi Arabia, to “lay the foundation” for a truce in Yemen to deliver lifesaving humanitarian assistance, and “reunited with allies and partners in Europe and around the world” with respect to Iran, “to reverse our isolation.”

“Now it is Iran that is isolated until it returns to the nuclear deal my predecessor abandoned with no plan for what might replace it,” he wrote.

On Riyadh, Biden said his aim was to “reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years.”

“Today, Saudi Arabia has helped to restore unity among the six countries of Gulf Cooperation Council, has fully supported the truce in Yemen and is now working with my experts to help stabilize oil markets with other OPEC producers,” wrote Biden.

Forces loyal to Yemen’s Houthi rebels take part in a military parade marking the seventh anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in their country, in the capital Sana’a, on March 31, 2022. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

As president, Biden said it was his “job to keep our country strong and secure” and “counter Russia’s aggression, put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China, and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world.”

“To do these things, we have to engage directly with countries that can impact those outcomes. Saudi Arabia is one of them…,” he added, defending the planned visit which has garnered criticism.

Biden said the region has its many challenges — including “Iran’s nuclear program and support for proxy groups, the Syrian civil war, food security crises exacerbated by Russia’s war against Ukraine, terrorist groups still operating in a number of countries, political gridlock in Iraq, Libya and Lebanon, and human rights standards that remain behind much of the world” — but is now “less pressurized and more integrated.” This is thanks in part to growing ties between Israel and Arab nations, Iraq’s diplomatic role in mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and more regional connection and engagement, described by Jordan’s King Abdullah II as a “new vibe.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II ibn Al-Hussein speaks at a news conference after talks at the Chancellery, in Berlin, Germany, March 15, 2022. (Hannibal Hanschke/Pool via AP)

“These are promising trends, which the United States can strengthen in a way no other country can. My travel next week will serve that purpose,” said Biden.

Israeli-Arab security overtures have multiplied since the 2020 Abraham Accords negotiated under the Trump administration normalized relations between Israel and four Arab League nations. They have grown further since the Pentagon switched coordination with Israel from US European Command to Central Command, or CENTCOM, last year. The move grouped Israel’s military with former Arab opponents, including Saudi Arabia and other nations that have yet to recognize Israel.

Encouraging Arab nations to strengthen security ties and overall relations with Israel is one of the aims of Biden’s travels to Israel and Saudi Arabia next week, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.

A packed itinerary

Biden is set to land Wednesday afternoon at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, where he will be greeted by Prime Minister Yair Lapid in an official welcome ceremony.

His busy two-day trip to Israel will include meetings with Israeli leaders, a tour of several Israeli security systems including Iron Beam, a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and a speech at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Jewish Olympic games.

Biden will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, where is expected to announce a package of steps aimed at strengthening the PA, a senior US official told The Times of Israel Wednesday in a conversation about Biden’s itinerary.

Biden then will head back to Ben Gurion Airport, from where he will make a rare direct flight to Saudi Arabia to attend the GCC+3 summit.

In an initiative it is hoping to solidify before the president lands, the US is working to finalize the transfer of a pair of Red Sea islands from Egyptian to Saudi control as part of an agreement that would see Riyadh take a series of steps to normalize ties with Israel, an Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

The normalization measures would include Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to Israeli flights to the Far East in addition to rolling out direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims, the Middle East diplomat said, confirming reporting in the Axios news site.

Biden will also discuss broader regional cooperation efforts, maintaining the ceasefire between warring parties in Yemen and the global energy crisis.

Jacob Magid and Agencies contributed to this report.

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