Saudi Foreign Minister ::

– Joe Biden’s controversial punchline with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was “a victory” for the US president, the Saudi foreign minister told CNN in an exclusive interview on Saturday.

The US president faced a backlash over the informal way he greeted the kingdom’s de facto ruler when he arrived in Jeddah on Friday. Critics said the punch was inappropriate given US suspicions that the crown prince was responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 – and Biden’s subsequent 2020 campaign pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”.

But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan played down the controversy in an interview with CNN’s Nic Robertson hours after the president left Jeddah on Saturday.

“I see the picture as a victory for President Biden,” bin Farhan said.

“Out of it came a meeting with a key leader in the region. Out of it, I think, was a reinvigoration of the strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and the United States.”

Bin Farhan said it was “completely normal” that the leaders exchanged “kindnesses”, adding: “I don’t know why we are hanging on to a fist bump.”

Biden came to Jeddah seeking solutions to one of his main political problems at home – exorbitant gas prices – as diplomacy with Saudi Arabia in the Middle East was seen as one of the few avenues he could borrow to bring down the prices that are straining millions of Americans. Bin Farhan said the crown prince was open to increasing Saudi Arabia’s oil capacity – within limits.

“The most important point in the Crown Prince’s statement today was that we must have a balanced approach to our energy transition because the kingdom, as it increases its capacity to 13 million barrels, cannot go beyond beyond,” he said.

However, critics say Biden’s visit was overshadowed by lingering unease over human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

Concerns about the optics of the trip were highlighted on Saturday when it emerged that when Biden raised the issue of Khashoggi’s murder, the crown prince responded by saying the US had ‘made its own mistakes’ . In particular, the Crown Prince referred to the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the May murder of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abbu Akleh in occupied West Bank like incidents that had a bad image of the United States.

For its part, the White House has defended Biden’s use of the punch as part of an effort to reduce physical contact amid the rapid spread of a novel coronavirus variant, noting that Biden has also punched several Israeli leaders before arriving in Jeddah.

Back at the White House on Saturday night, Biden sounded annoyed when asked if he regretted the welcome. “Why don’t you talk about something that matters. I’m happy to answer a question that matters,” he said.

The meeting between Biden and the crown prince was one of the most watched moments of Biden’s historic visit to the Middle East, with the controversy distracting from some of the other items on the president’s agenda, including including discussions of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Prior to Biden’s arrival, Saudi Arabia had pressured the United States to provide security guarantees if negotiations with Iran failed. The latest round of talks between the United States and Iran has stalled.

In a statement after the meeting, the White House said Biden had “affirmed the United States’ commitment to working with Saudi Arabia and other allies and partners in the Middle East to integrate and strengthen security cooperation”.

While Saudi Arabia – one of Iran’s biggest regional rivals – backs a tough response to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, other Gulf states fear getting caught in the crossfire and favor talks as a way forward. to be continued. The UAE, in particular, has said it opposes a regional military alliance specifically targeting Iran.

In his interview with CNN’s Nic Robertson, bin Farhan played down any differences, saying the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain – were united to support “negotiations” with Iran. .

He said Saudi Arabia wanted to resolve its differences with Iran through diplomacy, but was also working with the United States to strengthen its ability to “defend against possible Iranian aggression.”

“The Crown Prince’s discussion with President Biden focused on how to deal with the Iranian threat. And here we talked, first of all, about negotiations, but also about putting in place enough pressure to get the Iranians to come to the negotiating table,” bin Farhan said. said in response to a question about Israel considering a last resort strike against Iran to prevent it from producing nuclear weapons.

“We have talks with Iran, as you know, UAE too, our friends in Qatar, Kuwait too, so all of us as a GCC collective are talking to Iranians because we want to resolve our differences through dialogue, we hope that the Iranians will respond in this way,” he added.

However, bin Farhan told Robertson, “Obviously we have to protect ourselves.”

“We are working with the United States to build our capabilities and (those of) others in the region … to defend against possible Iranian aggression.”

He added: “We heard a commitment from President Biden to a robust defense of the kingdom.”

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Kevin E. Boling