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Biden, Saudi Crown Prince Meet in Bid to Reset Soured Relations

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia—President Biden said he confronted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a politically fraught meeting intended to reset relations with an oil-rich nation the U.S. believes it can no longer afford to shun amid high energy prices.

“I made my view crystal clear,” the U.S. president said, noting that he raised the brutal 2018 dismemberment of Mr. Khashoggi at the beginning of the Friday meeting. “I’ll always stand up for our values.” In recent days, Mr. Biden and his senior aides repeatedly declined to say whether the president would bring up Mr. Khashoggi’s death during his meeting with the crown prince.

Prince Mohammed told Mr. Biden that he wasn’t personally responsible for the killing. “I indicated I thought he was,” Mr. Biden said. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing.

The prince said the kingdom had put on trial those responsible for the killing and put in place guardrails to ensure nothing like it would happen again, said Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs. The prince told the president that he welcomed a conversation about human rights and pointed to his own record, which includes more rights for women and a sweeping set of social reforms in the past six years, Mr. Jubeir said.

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President Biden met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on Friday.

Photo: AMR NABIL/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The confrontation over Mr. Khashoggi’s death came after Mr. Biden landed in Saudi Arabia before sunset following a rare direct flight from Israel nearly three years after promising to treat the kingdom like a “pariah” over human-rights issues, a vow that helped bring U.S.-Saudi relations to a breaking point. He is now betting that engaging personally with the kingdom’s 36-year-old leader will ultimately help reassert U.S. leadership in the Middle East while also eventually taming high inflation at home.

The president said he didn’t regret pledging to make Saudi Arabia a pariah: “I don’t regret anything I said.”

The political risks were high for Mr. Biden on the second and final stop in a four-day Middle Eastern tour. Prince Mohammed is still considered toxic in Washington and within the president’s Democratic Party over Mr. Khashoggi’s death, arrests of other domestic critics and the Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war.

Images of the two leaders interacting in the gilded Al Salam Royal Palace were quickly cited online as either vindication of the Saudi de facto leader or proof that Mr. Biden had abandoned a campaign pledge.

Donald Trump, who was president at the time of Mr. Khashoggi’s death, had said he took the royal’s denials at face value and defended him as a legitimate world figure. When he was asked in 2019 about the Central Intelligence Agency’s conclusion that Prince Mohammed personally ordered the killing, Mr. Trump said he didn’t want to talk about intelligence.

Prince Mohammed greeted Mr. Biden with a fist bump outside a seaside palace, and they went on to meet for roughly two hours, the president said, adding that they accomplished some “significant business.”

Following the meeting, the White House said Saudi leaders pledged to extend a U.N.-mediated cease-fire in Yemen and signaled openness to increasing oil production, though U.S. officials provided few details about the proposals.

“I’m doing all I can to increase supply for the United States of America and I expect that to happen,” Mr. Biden said. “The Saudis share that urgency.”

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President Biden said the trip to Saudi Arabia was about maintaining the American leadership role in the Middle East.

Photo: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS

Mr. Biden’s advisers said they believe the meeting will pay off in the coming weeks and months as the countries build on the issues they discussed.

For the crown prince, the meeting marked another turning point after he faced international isolation over the killing of Mr. Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The slaying focused global attention on the royal’s brutal crackdown on dissent and overshadowed his efforts to transform the kingdom’s economy and liberalize its society.

Casting Friday’s encounter as less confrontational, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, said: “It was candid, it was honest, it was open and what I found profoundly refreshing is the president said, ‘I just need to be clear and direct with you,’ and the crown prince said, ‘I welcome that, and let me be clear and direct with you.’”

“That’s the way we move forward and that’s the way we solve problems,” she added.

Upon his arrival, Mr. Biden was received at the airport by senior royals and the Saudi Royal Guard wearing traditional uniforms and holding swords. The crown prince met Mr. Biden outside the seaside palace and the two bumped fists without apparent emotion before quickly walking indoors.

The president later met briefly with 86-year old King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud ahead of a larger meeting with the crown prince and senior Saudi and U.S. officials. During the larger meeting, Saudi ministers greeted Mr. Biden with smiles and more fist bumps, and they shared dinner, Saudi officials said.

Mr. Biden’s move toward a more traditional American foreign policy with Saudi Arabia comes as the Middle East’s global importance snaps back into focus with the war in Ukraine and oil prices at or near $100 a barrel. In the run-up to the Russian invasion, Mr. Biden found himself shut out of conversations with Prince Mohammed, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin was speaking to him.

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The meeting took place as the Middle East undergoes a geopolitical realignment driven in part by fears Washington is losing interest in the region at a dangerous moment, with Iran closer than ever to a nuclear weapon. Mr. Biden’s four-day trip, which began in Israel, gave the U.S. its first big chance to put its stamp on the security relationships brewing among Arab nations, Israel and Turkey, which have set aside differences in recent months.

The White House also offered few details about how Saudi Arabia would proceed on oil production. “Saudi Arabia has committed to support global oil market balancing for sustained economic growth,” the White House said.

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to turn the page after years of international isolation.

Photo: POOL/REUTERS

Mr. Jubeir, the minister of state for foreign affairs, said Saudi Arabia maintains its long-held position of balancing supply and demand. “We base that on fundamentals, not on speculation, not on hysteria, not on geopolitics,” he said.

High gasoline prices are a major political problem for Mr. Biden ahead of the coming midterm elections, where Democrats face steep losses. The president and his senior aides have signaled that recent declines in oil and gasoline prices relieved some of the pressure to convince Saudi Arabia to make dramatic increases in production.

A central goal of the trip was to strengthen cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which don’t have diplomatic relations but have maintained covert contacts for years on security matters. The president’s aides believe the threat posed by Iran to the entire region can bring Israel and Saudi Arabia closer together.

The Biden administration said peacekeeping forces would be removed from Tiran Island, a strategically located island at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba that has been a source of tension between Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia for years. Under the agreement, the island would be developed for tourism and other uses, according to the White House. The multinational forces oversaw the island as part of a peace treaty signed by Israel and Egypt in 1979. The new agreement leaves the island’s security to the Saudis.

The Tiran Island agreement paved the way for Saudi Arabia to announce earlier Friday new rules allowing commercial planes from Israel to fly over the kingdom in increasing numbers.

Mr. Biden is planning to deliver a speech on Saturday laying out his vision for the Middle East, amid doubts about Washington’s reliability, especially after last summer’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Write to Catherine Lucey at catherine.lucey@wsj.com, Andrew Restuccia at andrew.restuccia@wsj.com and Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com

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