Biden meets with Saudi leader accused of approving journalist’s murder

President Biden has landed in Saudi Arabia and met with King Salman and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. It's delicate diplomacy for an administration that’s pledged to put human rights first, but is also dealing with the realities of Saudi influence in the region over oil. Nick Schifrin reports from Jeddah.

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  • William Brangham:

    President Biden has landed in Saudi Arabia and met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

    It's a delicate diplomacy for an administration that has pledged to put human rights first, but is also dealing with the realities of Saudi influence in the region over oil.

    Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The oldest American president and the Middle East's youngest leader began with a fist bump, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, across from President Biden and his advisers, a photo-op the Saudis wanted, but ended with a reminder of the two countries' tension.

  • Question:

    Jamal Khashoggi, will you apologize to his family, sir?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Despite the interruption, the meeting scheduled for one hour ran for three and produced a series of announcements, opening Saudi airspace to civilian aircraft flying to and from Israel, removing U.S. peacekeepers from a Red Sea island, a move that could help Saudi-Israeli normalization, and the Saudi commitment to extend the truce in Yemen.

    After, President Biden said the meeting went well, but he also raised the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

  • President Joe Biden:

    He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it. I indicated that I thought he was.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When the president landed, he was greeted by a government official, a far cry from the over-the-top reception for former President Trump in 2017 and MBS' personal welcome.

    Trump's legacy also played out this morning, when President Biden visited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It was a formal red carpet welcome, but Abbas criticized Biden for not reversing Trump's policies.

  • Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority President (through translator):

    Reopening the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem, removing the Palestinian Liberation Organization from the U.S. terrorist list — we are not terrorists — and reopening its office in Washington.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Biden fulfilled none of those requests. Instead, he pledged $100 million for Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem and $200 million for the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees.

    He tried to display empathy, but came up empty on specifics about Israeli-Palestinian peace.

  • President Joe Biden:

    So even if the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on trying to bring the Palestinians and Israelis and both sides closer together.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But today's focus was on Saudi Arabia and the man who will be king.

    MBS has engineered some reforms, giving Saudi women more rights, opening up entertainment, and curbing religious extremists. But U.S. officials also believe he's the source of the kingdom's crackdown on its critics and say he approved the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

    Do you believe Saudi Arabia can be a partner to the United States?

  • Abdullah Alaoudh, Saudi Activist:

    It's absolutely not possible to have such a partner.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Abdullah Alaoudh is a Saudi activist. I spoke to him last week in the U.S.

  • Abdullah Alaoudh:

    : I see him as not today a reformer, but rather a deformer, who killed our friend Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and dismembered him.

    I didn't see a person like that as a reformer.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Abdullah's father, Salman, is a prominent Muslim scholar who called for change in the Saudi government. He has been held in solitary confinement and faces the death penalty.

  • Abdullah Alaoudh:

    My father was one of the main and prominent main names that actually theorized about democracy in Islam. And this is the kind of Islam that MBS does not want, although he's claiming he's modernizing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Another Saudi detained, Suleiman al-Dowaish, a well-known Islamic preacher who criticized King Salman for giving his son too much power.

    He's been detained since 2016. His son, Malik al-Dowaish, spent years campaigning for his release and was jailed just two weeks ago. He recorded this video before his arrest.

    Malik al-Dowaish, Son of Suleiman al-Dowaish (through translator): Disappearance is not a solution. And it's not just to disappear a person from his family for more than five years.

  • Abdullah Alaoudh:

    Democracy, basically, that's what he wanted. It's nothing strange, nothing weird, nothing radical. It's simple, straightforward. The Saudi people deserve, like any other people in this planet, democracy, basic liberties, a multiparty system, separations of power, and independent judiciary. It's as simple as this.

  • William Brangham:

    And Nick Schifrin joins me now from the press filing center in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

    Nick, great to see you.

    We just heard how President Biden characterized his discussions with the crown prince about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. What have Saudi officials been telling you about that?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, so, just a few minutes ago, William, I interviewed Adel Al-Jubeir. He is the minister of state for foreign affairs, effectively the deputy foreign minister here and a longtime leader in foreign affairs in Saudi circles.

    And he said that that is not what happened. That's not what he saw, at least he heard, in the meeting. He said that President Biden did bring up Jamal Khashoggi, but it was not in the same language. It was certainly not as confrontational as President Biden claimed.

    And so the two sides clearly are still disagreeing over human rights. And the bottom line, from the Saudi perspective, is that, is that, yes, President Biden did push MBS on this. MBS said, it wasn't me, and that we have taken steps to tackle the people who MBS claims acted in a rogue fashion.

    Of course, the U.S. believes that MBS approved that murder himself.

  • William Brangham:

    Separately, Nick, one of the main reasons President Biden is in Saudi Arabia is to pressure the kingdom to ramp up oil production, ostensibly to bring down gas prices elsewhere and here in the U.S.

    Have Saudi officials said whether they're going to actually follow through on that ask?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, so I think U.S. officials wouldn't use the word pressure. They would use the word discussion about energy security.

    But, of course, part of that, William, let's be honest, is hoping that Saudi Arabia opens the spigots, so that gas prices in the States can come down.

    President Biden tonight said that he believed Saudi officials were on the same page as him. But, again, Adel Al-Jubeir, I asked him specifically whether Saudi Arabia intended to increase production in the next few weeks. And he would not say that Saudi Arabia planned to do that. He said that Saudi Arabia and OPEC had increased production over the last few months already.

    And independent analysts, William, do note that, between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, even if there were some increase, it would not necessarily lead to easing of prices inside the United States. So, again, President Biden quite confident about what Saudi officials saying. Saudi officials who I talk to aren't quite so sure.

  • William Brangham:

    Nick, there has also been a lot of talk, as you have been reporting on this trip, about better relations regionally with Israel.

    Are the Saudis on board with that move?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, it's such an interesting question, because we do see Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, the countries that have normalized relations politically with Israel, beginning to share military and intelligence with — between the militaries and between the intelligence services of those countries.

    And what that allows them to do, William, is to start to talk about a kind of regional air defense architecture against Iran, Iranian missiles and Iranian drones. Saudi officials are not quite there yet. I asked Adel Al-Jubeir about that. He says that, we need to see progress in Israel, we need to see peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, before Saudi Arabia can really, truly normalize with Israel.

    And that includes kind of behind-the-scenes military intelligence cooperation that U.S. officials tell me is simply not happening, in part because they say King Salman is still alive, William. MBS isn't quite in charge yet. And so long as King Salman is alive, the people I speak to inside the U.S. government believe that there will be no normalization and no real effort to share military or intelligence between Saudi Arabia and Israel, as the Israelis would like.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Nick Schifrin joining us from Saudi Arabia.

    Thanks so much, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks.

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