Biden unveils new Middle East framework as he wraps up highly scrutinized trip

President Biden left Saudi Arabia Saturday, concluding his first trip to the Middle East as president. The visit came amid questions about the relationship between the two countries as the administration attempted to balance human rights, energy and security interests. After some fist-bump diplomacy and a summit with Arab leaders, Biden announced a new Middle East framework. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Good evening. It's great to be with you. And we begin tonight in Saudi Arabia, where President Biden today wrapped up his first trip to the Middle East as commander-in-chief. The visit unfolded amid questions about the relationship between the two countries and the Biden administration's attempt to balance human rights, energy and security interests. Following a highly scrutinized meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince and a summit with Arab leaders, President Biden unveiled what he called a new framework for the Middle East.

    Joining us now from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to discuss all this is Nick Schifrin. And Nick, President Biden today, as you will know, he laid out his vision for American policy across the Middle East. What did he say?

  • Nick Schifrin, Foreign Affairs Correspondent:

    Senior officials describe it as a major speech. And frankly, Jeff is what they want to be talking about, rather than that fist bump heard around the world with the Crown Prince yesterday. And President Biden, as you said, called it a new framework. He delivered it in a conference to Gulf and Arab allies. And he said that the new framework could be summarized in one sentence.

    Joe Biden, (D) U.S. President: The United States is invested in building a positive future in the region, in partnership with all of you. And United States is not going anywhere.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. officials emphasize that last phrase and attempt to reassure allies who have really been worried about U.S. disengagement in the region, and also an attempt to ensure that Iran but also China and Russia don't expand their influence in the region. And specifically it says the U.S. will not allow a foreign power to jeopardize freedom of navigation or dominate through military buildups, that's a clear reference to Iran. But it also pledges to reduce tensions and de-escalate wherever possible. That's a reference to ongoing diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program. And number three, it says the U.S. will always promote human rights.

    Geoff, U.S. allies are certainly supportive of the U.S.'s combative stance against Iran, they are not supportive of that Iran nuclear deal that the U.S. is trying to resign. Well, as for those human rights, Geoff, still lots of questions after President Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a pariah, and now giving its 36-year-old Crown Prince, a fist bump.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And President Biden has been criticized for that. But he also said that he confronted the Crown Prince over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, that's what he said yesterday in the press conference with reporters. Well, what's been the reaction on the Saudi side to all of this?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's a really important question because it really reveals both sides motivations. So President Biden claimed that he confronted MBS, the Crown Prince over Jamal Khashoggi. But I talked to Adel al-Jubeir, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, basically the Deputy Foreign Minister, and he's said that MBS responded to the President by basically describing his own version of human rights. MBS told the President "You can't impose one set of values on another country. The U.S. tried to do this in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it backfired."

    And he brought up another journalist recently killed in the occupied West Bank, Shereen Abu Aqleh who's an American-Palestinian and MBS asked, what is the United States going to do about that? That's, of course, all according to al-Jubeir.

    Now, both sides, of course, Geoff, benefit from spinning. The U.S. president claims that he confronted the man that U.S. intelligence say I ordered the assassination or ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and Saudis, both presenting MBS, is holding his own, but also trying to reset relations.

    When I talked to al-Jubeir, he didn't describe the President and MBS as confronting each other. He explained that MBS and the President were explaining to each other what their various versions of the story was. And that is really what the Saudis are trying to do here. But the President will continue to face questions about whether he should have come and frankly, MBS will not erase the stain of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing detention of thousands of Saudis.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And we should say, we'll see your interview with al-Jubeir later in this broadcast. But Nick, President Biden, as you know, he traveled to Saudi Arabia, despite that country's troubling human rights record, in large part because of oil. On that issue, did he move the needle on getting OPEC to produce more oil?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Officially, no, but that's only because both sides want to portray this as a meeting of strategic interests, rather than transactions. But independent analysts and U.S. officials do expect Saudi Arabia and OPEC to increase production starting in September. There's a real question, though, Geoff, as to whether that will actually lead to decreased gas prices in the U.S. that the administration wants so badly before the midterm elections.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And finally, before we let you go, President Biden said he strongly supports the Trump administration's so-called Abraham Accords as a way to integrate Israel in the Middle East. Give us a sense, what's been the reaction to that? I mean, has there been any diplomatic progress since the signing nearly two years ago?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's so interesting, administration officials — Biden, administration officials did not embrace the Abraham Accords in the early days, the administration, but they certainly do so now. And that's in part because of those political agreements signed during the Trump administration have led to military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and a handful of Arab allies. And what that could lead to is a kind of regional architecture against Iran, against Iranian drones and Iranian missiles. And that's really the glue to us strategy here, presenting the U.S. as the only political and military actor that could really be at the center of a common purpose against a common enemy. But frankly, Geoff, China's influence here is growing. Saudi Arabia's connection to Russia still is very high and these countries would be taking these steps against Iran with or without U.S. leadership.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    My colleague Nick Schifrin, reporting for us live tonight in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Nick, thanks so much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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