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President Biden finished his visit to the Middle East Saturday at a meeting of 10 regional leaders led by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The trip largely focused on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, but there was also talk of whether the kingdom would make enough oil to ease gas prices. Nick Schifrin spoke with Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, to discuss.
As we reported earlier, President Biden wrapped up his first trip to the Middle East today, at a meeting of 10 regional leaders led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the triple largely focused on Saudi Arabia's human rights record and President Biden reversing his promise to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state. But there was also talk of oil and whether Saudi Arabia would produce more, possibly easing gas prices. Last night Correspondent Nick Schifrin sat down with Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.
Do you believe that these meetings mean that President Biden has decided not to make Saudi Arabia pariah?
Adel al-Jubeir, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia: I believe that that's a quote was during the campaign and the campaign is what I call it the funny season, lots of things happen, but things, people have a different perspective on, say an officer and have access to intelligence and information. And they look at the vastness of the relationship. So it's a critically important relationship. And it's important that we have a continuing the tradition of personal contact between the leadership of our two countries.
One of the points of contention that President Biden's pointed out is human rights. And tonight he specifically said that he brought up Jamal Khashoggi's death to the Crown Prince, the President said that MBS said he was not personally responsible for it. And then the President said, I indicated to him that he probably was responsible for it. Is that how that went?
I didn't hear that exchange, that particular exchange. What I heard is that the President talks about the importance of human rights to the United States. And that human rights is an issue that American presidents attach great importance to, even though sometimes they don't live up to those ideals, which makes America human like the rest of the world.
Did the president bring up Jamal Khashoggi?
He brought — he mentioned the issue of Jamal Khashoggi, and he said that this is an issue that has generated a lot of interest and concern in the U.S. Congress and among the American public. And that he understood — he knew what some of your best position was, and the Crown Prince indicated that Saudi, we did every civilized country would do, we investigated, we charged against those who committed this crime. The courts rendered their verdicts and those individuals were punished. America did this after Abu Ghraib. Nobody can say that George Bush as president was responsible or ordered Abu Ghraib.
President Biden said tonight that the Saudis, "share the urgency about lowering oil prices." Will Saudi Arabia push for OPEC plus, to increase oil production in the next few weeks?
Saudi, this policy has always been to make sure that there are adequate supplies of oil that go to the markets.
Adequate is a different word than the President used to —
Whatever the markets need, we try to ensure that the markets are adequately supplied. This has been our policy for a number of decades.
That — with all due respect, that doesn't sound like you're going to increase production in the next few weeks, as the president —
No, we have increased production over the last nine months tremendously. There will be an OPEC meeting on the third of August, I believe. And decisions will be made with regards to whether the market needs more crude or not. So it's not a yes or no.
Let's talk about Iran, U.S. and Israeli officials, I speak to say the breakout time and Iran is just a few weeks. But that actually creating nuclear bombs might take as much as two years, is that the Saudi assessment as well?
I can't comment in terms of specific assessments. But our view is that the Iran acquiring nuclear weapon is extremely dangerous to the world and extremely dangerous to our region. We believe that Iran shouldn't be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapon with all means possible. We believe that the JPC away in its original form was too weak and too limited.
And therefore, the deal that's on the table currently is also to weaken to —
We believe that the — any agreement has to ensure that Iran can never produce a nuclear weapon. Our criticism of the original deal was that it had a limit on how many years Iran was restricted from enriching. And it also had a limit with regards to the extent of the inspections, inspections are very intrusive, but they were not broad enough.
The Crown Prince four years ago said that if Iran were to go nuclear, Saudi Arabia would also go nuclear, has Saudi Arabia taken any steps toward that decision, given how close that breakout time is in a row?
We are — we certainly would not be discussing this on television. But we have pointed out the danger of Iran going nuclear, we believe that it will contribute to proliferation in our region and our position was very clearly articulated.
Well, Saudi Arabia take further steps of normalization toward Israel, so long as there is an occupation by Israel at the Palestinians.
It's not about normalization, our objective is to have peace. And our objective is to have peace, with which you have two states living side by side in peace and security and those states prospering. We believe that when you reach that point, then everything is possible. But we believe that the Israelis have to do, take certain steps in order to try to make that happen.
Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, and of course, the United Arab Emirates, have political normalization. But they also, according to Israeli officials, have military and intelligence cooperation with the Israeli military. Is that something that the Saudi military is willing to do?
We see the countries that signed agreements with Israel under the so-called Abraham Accords and we're beginning to see some impact of those decisions on the Israeli domestic politics with regards to the benefits of having peace, and we hope that those positive changes will continue and lead to a more forward leaning policy among — within Israel towards an accommodation with the Palestinians.
So that sounds like that kind of cooperation military to military intelligence cooperation, these are simply steps that you're not willing to take yet?
There are — it's difficult to take steps in the absence of peace agreements.
Adel al-Jubeir, thank you very much.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Kaisha Young is a general assignment producer at PBS News Weekend.
Emine Yücel is a politics production assistant for PBS News Weekend and Washington Week.
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