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President Biden meets with the Saudi royal family in a politically fraught gathering

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It was perhaps the most anticipated moment of President Biden's trip to the Middle East - the moment that he came face to face with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man who, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, gave the OK to the 2018 operation that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden greeted the prince with a fist bump, and that did not go over well back in the U.S.

NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid has been traveling with the president and joins us now from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So how exactly did today's meeting go?

KHALID: Well, Ailsa, I would say, to backtrack a bit, I mean, the White House has been extremely conscious of the criticism that the president would face for this trip. Even before he left, the president himself wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post defending his decision to visit Saudi. And really, the reason this trip has caused such a fuss is that when Biden was running for office, he had condemned the kingdom as a pariah.

CHANG: Right.

KHALID: And then, you know, fast-forward to today. Biden spent more than two hours sitting down face to face with the crown prince to talk about a range of issues, including things like energy security that, you know, were not so much of a concern during the campaign when oil prices were lower. But I will say, despite the strategic reasons for this meeting, there are, as you mentioned, plenty of folks back home who questioned the president's decision. The publisher of The Washington Post, where Khashoggi worked, called the fist bump shameful. And then one of Biden's fellow Democrats, Congressman Adam Schiff, said the fist bump was a, quote, "visual reminder of the continuing grip that oil-rich autocrats have on U.S. foreign policy."

CHANG: So how did Biden respond to that criticism?

KHALID: Well, the White House suddenly arranged for the president to deliver remarks. Those of us who were journalists traveling with the president had a rather long day. So this was at 10:30 at night here in Jeddah. And Biden said he raised the killing of Khashoggi at the outset of his meeting with the prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I made my view crystal clear. I said very straightforwardly, for an American president to be silent on an issue of human rights, is this consistent with - inconsistent with who we are and who I am?

KHALID: I will say, though, Ailsa, you know, the president sort of laughed off criticism that he had given the prince a fist bump.

CHANG: Wow. Well, beyond raising Khashoggi's killing, I mean, how did Biden explain why it was so important to have this meeting with the royal family at this time?

KHALID: He said what he's focused on is trying to make sure that Russia and China do not gain influence in the region. And he said there were important security issues to discuss, including, you know, the matter of oil, which - it is worth pointing out that the president explicitly said he is doing all he can to increase supply for the United States and suggested Americans could expect to see a boost in oil production in the coming weeks that could help lower gas prices.

You know, specifically when it comes to the Saudis, there were a list of agreements. He said the Saudis would extend a ceasefire in Yemen. They agreed to work together on infrastructure projects around the world. And there were also some measures to start to normalize relations with Israel, starting with the decision to open its airspace to Israeli flights.

CHANG: And real quick, Asma, I understand you started your day in the West Bank, where the president had another fairly sensitive meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. How did Biden - or what did Biden accomplish in those talks, do you think?

KHALID: You know, as we crossed into the West Bank, Biden himself saw signs that there were along the route of the motorcade that said, Mr. President, this is apartheid. And he acknowledged in his remarks the grief, he said, that is felt by Palestinians. But he also just nodded to the political realities of the moment, saying that the situation is not ripe to restart negotiations. You know, he's focused on this trip on some of the broader issues at play in the region, and he's expecting to expand on some of that tomorrow when he meets with a range of nine leaders from throughout the Middle East.

CHANG: That is NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you so much, Asma.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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