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Biden's trip to Mideast was seen as a reset of relations by Gulf Arab leaders

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In Saudi Arabia, the dust is settling a little on President Biden's short visit over the weekend. Top Saudi officials are touting a return to the status quo of U.S.-Saudi relations. Meanwhile, Saudi dissidents and human rights activists abroad say that Biden's friendly optics with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has already had consequences. NPR's Fatma Tanis reports from Jeddah.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: After years of concerns about American engagement in the region, President Biden's visit appears to have set the record straight for the time being.

BADER AL-SAIF: What we have seen through the summit and the communiques is that America has affirmed its presence in the Middle East. According to President Biden, America is not going anywhere. And this was needed to be said.

TANIS: That's Bader Al-Saif, professor of history at Kuwait University. Since Biden's return to the U.S., high-level Saudi officials have expressed satisfaction on local and international media for what they see as a return to normalcy in U.S.-Saudi relations, and Al-Saif says it shows their confidence.

AL-SAIF: The Middle East, the Gulf in particular, is more resurgent. It's more confident of its abilities.

TANIS: The White House says Saudi Arabia agreed to work on ending the war in Yemen, working toward energy market stability, and made a historic gesture toward Israel by opening its airspace to commercial flights going to or from Israel. But the Saudi leadership had its own spin on that.

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FAISAL BIN FARHAN: No, there are - this has nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel.

TANIS: That's Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, at a press conference after the summit.

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BIN FARHAN: We hope that it'll make some travelers' lives easier. It's not in any way a precursor to any further steps.

TANIS: Al-Saif says Saudis want to keep up pressure on Israel to end its occupation of land Palestinians seek for an independent state.

AL-SAIF: Saudi Arabia will not normalize until they get an answer on the proposals that they put forward in 2002 in Beirut - land for peace.

TANIS: Meanwhile, Saudi dissidents abroad and human rights activists have been raising alarms about Biden's meeting with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and their now-famous fist-bump greeting. Abdullah Alaoudh in Washington is the director of Gulf affairs at Democracy for the Arab World Now, and he says the consequences are already visible.

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: They are going after dissidents, and they are calling them terrorists.

TANIS: He's referring to comments on the BBC made by a top Saudi official who said what the West views as dissidents and expression of opinion, the kingdom sees as terrorists and incitement.

ALAOUDH: This happened, like, one day after the Biden visit. This is exactly what we were talking about for months and months. This kind of visit basically emboldens MBS to go more brutal and more rogue.

TANIS: He says President Biden failed by separating Democratic values from strategic interests in his meeting with the crown prince, who's also known as MBS.

ALAOUDH: When the Biden administration abandoned human rights, MBS has the leverage and only MBS.

TANIS: The White House insists it will continue to stress human rights values. When President Biden was asked about whether he's confident there won't be another incident like what happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in an operation the U.S. says was approved by the crown prince, the president said if that happens again, he'll respond. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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