After an eventful day where he flew for the first time directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia on his first visit to the Middle East as U.S. president, Joe Biden touted the major announcements on Friday that many hope can be the first steps to normalization between the Arab kingdom and the Jewish state.

“Thanks to many months of quiet diplomacy by the staff, we’ve accomplished some significant business today,” he said during a press conference in the Saudi city of Jeddah after meetings with Saudi leaders. “First, as you saw this morning, the Saudis will open their airspace to all civilian carriers. That is a big deal, big deal. Not only symbolically, but substantively, it’s a big deal.”

The development means that for the first time in history, Israeli civilian aircraft can cross Saudi airspace, as well as allow Muslims to travel from Israel to Mecca.

“This is the first tangible step on the path and what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations,” he said.

The second development touted by Biden was the announcement of an agreement with regards to the status of the Tiran and Sanafir islands, which until 2017 were administered by Egypt and are located in the straits that connect the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. Egypt and Israel had an agreement to allow Israeli ships safe passage through the straits as it is Israel’s only route to the Red Sea from Eilat. Saudi Arabia formally agreed to continue Egyptian obligations vis-à-vis Israel, and for the first time since the Camp David Accords 40 years ago, international peacekeepers, including American troops, will leave the island.

“We concluded a historic deal to transform a flashpoint at the heart of the Middle East wars into an area of peace,” said Biden, remembering the five American soldiers who died on the island in 2020. “It’s important to remember them today. Now, thanks to this breakthrough, this island will be open to tourism and economic development while retaining all necessary security arrangements and the present freedom of navigation of all parties, including Israel.”

Another achievement Biden cited is an agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia to work together to extend the three-month-long ceasefire in Yemen, which is approaching expiration at the beginning of August and pursue a diplomatic process for a wider agreement. Biden said that Saudi leaders were committed to continuing the delivery of food and humanitarian aid to civilians in Yemen.

Other topics of discussion and agreements focused on regional security, environment, technology and energy, which many believe was the primary topic of Biden’s visit in the wake of oil shortages and high gas prices caused by Russia’s war with Ukraine.

“I’m doing all I can to increase the supply for the United States of America which I expect to happen,” said the American president. “The Saudis share that urgency, and based on our discussions today, I expect we’ll see further steps in the coming weeks.”

U.S. President Joe Biden boards Air Force One for Saudi Arabia after a farewell ceremony in his honor at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on July 15, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

‘I’ll always stand up for our values’

Biden’s visit was not without controversy, with the leader of the free world seeming to play nice with the Saudis after having been highly critical of the country’s human-rights record following the accusation by American intelligence agencies that Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally called for the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

“With respect to the murder of Khashoggi, 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,” said Biden. “I was straightforward and direct in discussing it. I made my view crystal clear. I said, very straightforwardly, for an American president to be silent on an issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am. I’ll always stand up for our values.”

Asked by reporters what was the response from the crown prince to his comments about Khashoggi, Biden replied that bin Salman argued that he was not personally responsible for the murder and that he took action against those who were.

Biden arrived in Jeddah at 5:53 p.m. at King Abdulaziz International Airport with little fanfare compared to the ceremony in Israel. He was greeted on the tarmac by Prince Khalid bin Faisal Al Saud, governor of the Makkah region, Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States and other officials, but no heads of state. Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken entered the presidential limousine and drove off.

The motorcade arrived at Al Salam Royal Palace, where he was met by bin Salman, with whom he bumped fists.

The bilateral meeting included bin Salman; King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, custodian of the Two Holy Mosques; and Minister of State Musaed bin Muhammad Al-Aiban, member of the Council of Ministers and national security adviser.

Biden was joined at the meeting by Blinken and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

On Saturday, Biden will meet with leaders from nine countries for the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus three (GCC+3), conference, where one of the issues will be finalizing an agreement to connect Iraq’s electrical grid to the GCC grids through Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which he said will “deepen Iraq’s integration into the region” and reduces its dependence on Iran.

U.S. President Joe Biden boards Air Force One for Saudi Arabia after a farewell ceremony in his honor at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on July 15, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

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