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President Biden tackles Chinese and Russian relations with Middle Eastern leaders

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden laid out his vision for the Middle East today. On the last day of a short and politically fraught visit to Saudi Arabia, the president spoke about trying to rebuild trust in the region, what American leadership in a postwar Middle East can look like. NPR's White House correspondent Asma Khalid has been traveling with the president and joins us now from Jeddah. Asma, thanks for being with us.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So tell us more about how President Biden views America's role in the region.

KHALID: Well, Scott, the White House believes that after 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is at a turning point in the region. And the president made that point himself today during a meeting with Arab leaders from throughout the region.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Let me state clearly that the United States is going to remain an active, engaged partner in the Middle East.

KHALID: This White House is really thinking about the region through a new geopolitical lens. Biden has been keen to make sure that the United States doesn't leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran. And the focus has been about creating stability in the Middle East. You know, in some ways that translates to a level of pragmatism, with a goal of essentially just trying to make sure conflicts in the region do not erupt into all-out violence.

SIMON: President's been in Saudi Arabia and had a famous fist bump with a crown prince that he once said he would make a pariah. How did his meeting with Saudi Arabia's crown prince go?

KHALID: Well, the reason that Biden referred to the country as a pariah is because of the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the crown prince had approved of the operation that killed Khashoggi. And look, you know, this was always going to be a delicate meeting. And the White House knew this coming in. But that fist bump and the sort of duration of the meeting, I think, did inflame critics. That really, I think, touched a nerve for some people. The publisher of The Washington Post, where Khashoggi had worked, described the interaction as, quote, "shameful" and that it gave the crown prince, quote, "unwarranted redemption."

I will say, you know, I was one of the journalists in the room. But we didn't have a whole lot of access. Maybe we were there for just about two minutes or so. We couldn't hear much. And so really, the only image that was constantly getting replayed was this fist bump. So yesterday night here in Jeddah, the president's team quickly put together a press conference to somewhat counter the criticism.

SIMON: And what did he say?

KHALID: The president suggested that he had not been shy about bringing up human rights to the prince, and specifically the murder of Khashoggi.

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BIDEN: I raised it at the top of the meeting, making it clear what I thought of it at the time and what I think of it now.

KHALID: And he was asked if he regretted calling Saudi a pariah. I, in fact, followed up on that question.

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BIDEN: I don't regret anything I said.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did the...

BIDEN: Next question.

KHALID: Do you feel that way, though, Mr. President?

BIDEN: I just answered your question. Do I regret it? I don't regret anything that I said. What happened to Khashoggi was outrageous.

KHALID: You know, there is no doubt, though, that Biden's visit does give MBS the rehabilitation on the international stage that he has wanted.

SIMON: And presumably, the issue of oil came up.

KHALID: That's right. You know, Biden's national security adviser said not to expect a particular announcement right now out of this trip. That being said, both he and the president suggested that there will be actions in the coming weeks on oil.

SIMON: NPR's White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Thanks so much.

KHALID: Always good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.