King Salman receives Joe Biden at Al Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. Reuters
US President Joe Biden began a visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday by giving Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman a fist bump and shaking hands with King Salman Bin Abdulaziz.
Saudi state media showed images of Air Force One at the airport in the coastal city of Jeddah after a flight from Israel, making Biden the first US leader to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia.
Biden, wearing sunglasses, emerged from Air Force One to walk down a purple carpet and be greeted by Makkah province governor Prince Khaled Al Faisal and Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.
Later, state television Al Ekhbariya showed Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, greeting Biden with a fist bump and escorting him into Jeddah’s Al Salam Palace.
Biden met Saudi King Salman, 86, then he and Prince Mohammed sat across from one another at a large conference table for a “working session,” flanked by top officials.
King Salman, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman receive Joe Biden in Jeddah on Friday. Reuters
The visit is being closely watched for body language and rhetoric. At the start of Biden’s Middle East trip, officials said he would avoid close contacts, such as shaking hands, as a precaution against COVID-19. But the president ended up engaging in hand-shaking during the Israel leg of the tour.
After meeting the king, Biden and his team entered a conference room for a working session with the crown prince and Saudi ministers. “Welcome to Saudi Arabia,” Mohammed Bin Salman told Biden.
Later in the evening on Friday, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman also met Biden and held talks at the Al Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
The official talks touched on various topics such as how to boost cooperation between the two countries and ways to confront regional and world challenges.
Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Biden headed a large meeting between officials from both the countries.
Earlier during the day, the Saudi leadership paved the way for Israeli planes to use its airspace by announcing it was lifting restrictions on “all carriers,” a move welcomed by Biden as “historic.”
“Saudi Arabia’s decision can help build momentum toward Israel’s further integration into the region, including with Saudi Arabia,” the US leader said.
Biden also will take part in a Saturday gathering of leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — before returning to Washington. The leaders of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan are also to attend the gathering to discuss oil prices and Washington’s role in the region.
Jeddah marks the final stop on Biden’s Middle East tour, following talks on Friday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and meetings with Israeli officials a day earlier.
With Palestinians banned by Israel from political activity in Jerusalem, the US president travelled to Bethlehem in 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.
Biden was greeted in Bethlehem with a billboard reading “Justice for Shireen,” referring to Shireen Abu Akleh, the veteran Palestinian-American journalist shot dead in May while covering an Israeli army raid in the West Bank.
Speaking alongside Abbas, Biden said the US “will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting” of Abu Akleh’s death.
Earlier, Biden has announced $100 million in US assistance for east Jerusalem hospitals that serve as “the backbone” of health care for Palestinians.
He spoke on Friday during a visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital, which provides advanced medical care, including radiation treatment for cancer patients and paediatric kidney dialysis, to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.