Biden affirms US commitment to Saudi defence, calls for diplomacy in Yemen and praises release of rights activists.
United States President Joe Biden spoke for the first time since becoming president with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on Thursday as the US prepares to release a report about the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden emphasised the US commitment to assuring Saudi Arabia security from threats from Iran and discussed renewed diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen, the White House said in a statement released by the communications office.
Biden and the Saudi monarch addressed “the longstanding partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia” and the “US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups”, the White House readout of the call said.
“The President noted positively the recent release of several Saudi-American activists and Ms Loujain al-Hathloul from custody, and affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law,” the White House said.
Al-Hathloul, a prominent activist who had advocated for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia, was released from a Saudi prison on February 10 after nearly three years behind bars.
In Riyadh, “the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the US President stressed on the depth of the relationship between the two countries, and the importance of strengthening the partnership between them to serve their interests and achieve security and stability in the region and the world,” the Saudi Press Agency said in a statement.
The new Biden administration has taken a tougher stance towards Riyadh than the prior Trump administration, pushing for an end to the civil war in Yemen and greater recognition of human rights in the kingdom.
“Our administration is focused on recalibrating the relationship,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday before the call.
“Certainly, there are areas where we will express concerns and leave open the option of accountability,” Psaki said.
“There are also areas where we will continue to work with Saudi Arabia given the threats they face in the region,” she said.
Biden officials are poised to release to the public a declassified intelligence report from US spy agencies on the October 2018 assassination of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The report, required by Congress, is likely to acknowledge formally for the first time that US intelligence showed Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi hit squad acting at the command of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Biden on February 4 announced that he would terminate US military support for a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen blamed for targeting civilians and causing a humanitarian crisis.
He named US diplomat Timothy Lenderking as a special envoy for the Yemen conflict and signalled his administration would reverse Trump’s designation of the Iranian-aligned Houthis as a terrorist group.
Biden has also imposed a temporary freeze on sales of F-35 advanced fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates and precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia pending a review.
In the call on Thursday with the Saudi king, Biden pledged to “work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible”, the White House said.