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Biden fist-bumps Saudi crown prince, then raises attacks on dissidents

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) bumps fists with US President Joe Biden at Al-Salam Palace in the Red Sea port of Jeddah
— Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) (AFP)

US President Joe Biden said Friday he had confronted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over attacks on dissidents during his visit to Saudi Arabia, a country he once vowed to make a "pariah" over its human rights abuses.

Prince Mohammed drew global outrage for the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate, an operation US intelligence services said he "approved".

Saudi officials deny Prince Mohammed's involvement and say Khashoggi's death resulted from a "rogue" operation.

"What happened to Khashoggi was outrageous," Biden said Friday night after a meeting with Prince Mohammed in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

"I just made it clear if anything occurs like that again they will get that response and much more."

But Biden did not specify what exactly he meant by "that response", and earlier in the day he greeted Prince Mohammed, known as MBS, with a fist bump.

Biden said Kashoggi's killing "was outrageous" and that he discussed human rights with the Saudi crown prince

That moved prompted Khashoggi's fiancee to write to Biden on Twitter -- in what she framed as an imagined response from Khashoggi himself -- that "the blood of MBS's next victim is on your hands".

Despite his earlier condemnations of Saudi human rights abuses, Biden now appears ready to re-engage with the kingdom -- a key strategic US ally, a major supplier of oil and an avid buyer of weapons.

Washington wants the world's largest crude exporter to open the floodgates to bring down soaring oil prices, which threaten Democratic chances in November mid-term elections.

Yet Biden also tried to tamp down expectations that this week's visit to the Middle East would yield immediate gains.

Top 3 oil producers

"I'm doing all I can to increase the supply for the United States of America," he said, adding that concrete results would not be seen "for another couple weeks".

- Israeli ties -

US officials are also touting efforts to promote integration between Israel and Arab nations.

Biden began his Middle East tour in Israel seeking to promote integration between it and Arab countries and then became the first US leader to take a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia which does not recognise Israel

Biden arrived in Saudi Arabia after a stop in Israel, becoming the first US leader to fly directly from Tel Aviv to an Arab nation that does not recognise Israel.

Saudi Arabia has refused to join the US-brokered Abraham Accords under which Israel normalised ties with the kingdom's neighbours, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in 2020.

Riyadh has repeatedly said it would stick to the decades-old Arab League position of not establishing official ties with Israel until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.

But it is showing signs of greater openness towards Israel, and announced Friday it was lifting overflight restrictions on aircraft travelling to and from Israel, a move Biden hailed as "historic".

Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid also praised the decision.

"This is the first official step in normalisation with Saudi Arabia," he said.

The White House announced Friday that peacekeepers including US soldiers would leave the strategic Red Sea island of Tiran, located near Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Analysts say the move could spur contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia as they chart a possible path towards formal bilateral ties.

- 'Political horizon' in Bethlehem -

Jeddah marks the final stop on Biden's Middle East tour, following talks on Friday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and meetings with Israeli officials a day earlier.

Biden is received by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Bethlehem

With Palestinians banned by Israel from political activity in Jerusalem, the US president travelled to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank to meet Abbas.

Standing alongside him, Biden reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There "must be a political horizon that the Palestinian people can actually see", Biden said.

"I know that the goal of the two states seems so far away," Biden added.

Abbas said he was "taking steps" to improve relations with Washington and aimed to see the US consulate to Palestinians in Jerusalem -- which Trump closed -- reopen.

But Biden has made clear he had no plans to reverse Trump's controversial move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, which infuriated Palestinians who see its eastern sector as the seat of their future state.

With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations moribund since 2014, the US delegation has been focusing on economic measures.

- 'Justice for Shireen' -

Biden was greeted in Bethlehem with a billboard reading "Justice for Shireen", referring to Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian-American journalist shot dead in May while covering an Israeli army raid in the West Bank.

A photo of slain US-Palestinian Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, with a caption in Arabic calling her "the voice of Palestine", is seen amongst reporters ahead of a joint press conference between the US and Palestinian presidents

Her family requested to meet Biden during his visit, but his administration has instead invited them to Washington.

"I think if President Biden (can) find an hour and a half to go and attend a sport activity, he should have respected the family and given them 10 minutes to listen to them," said Samer Sinijlawi, chairman of a Palestinian nonprofit, the Jerusalem Development Fund, after Biden on Thursday attended a ceremony for Jewish athletes.

Speaking alongside Abbas, Biden said the US "will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting" of Abu Akleh's death.

Washington earlier this month concluded she was likely shot from an Israeli military position, but that there was no evidence of intent to kill.

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