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Saudi Arabian residents prepare for Biden's arrival

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When President Biden is done with meetings around Jerusalem, he takes Air Force One to Saudi Arabia. He will attend a summit of Arab leaders in the port city of Jeddah. He's been critical of the kingdom and its human rights abuses. So what do Saudis think of his decision to visit now? NPR's Fatma Tanis is in Jeddah.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: On a sticky late night on Jeddah's Corniche, families are strolling along the Red Sea waterfront. Nearby, cars blare music in traffic. Twenty-eight-year-old Fahda is walking a tiny black poodle. She hesitates to talk about politics at first, like many Saudis these days who fear repercussions from their government. The country is de facto led by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has jailed dissenters. And she and others only gave me their first names to be able to speak freely.

FAHDA: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: In Arabic, she tells me she's happy that Biden came around to realize that good relations with Saudi Arabia is in the best interest of the United States.

FAHDA: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: "Stronger is better for the region and the world," she says. She'd also like to see the U.S. doing more to support Saudi Arabia against Iran. Iranian-backed militants across the border in Yemen frequently launch rockets against the kingdom, and Iran sits just across the Persian Gulf. Sultan, a 33-year-old sitting with his friends, says the U.S. needs to be tougher on Iran.

SULTAN: (Through interpreter) If America had played its role correctly, Iran wouldn't have had the strength, ability and daring to do what it is doing today.

TANIS: He hopes Biden won't revive the Obama-era deal lifting economic sanctions on Iran in return for limits on its nuclear program. Saudis are aware that Biden has criticized the kingdom. When he ran for president, he called Saudi Arabia a pariah, in part because of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018. Saudi activists outside the country say Biden shouldn't be going there, that it'll undermine efforts to improve human rights, maybe even make them worse. But 22-year-old Jumana is hopeful that Biden will come and get a better impression of her country and its leaders.

JUMANA: They have always been great together, you know? So I'm hoping to see - if they work together, they'll be doing such great things in the world.

TANIS: One issue on the agenda - an effort led by the United States to open Saudi ties with Israel. Fahda wants to see trade with Israel that would help the Saudi economy - and something else.

FAHDA: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: She says she hopes to go to Jerusalem and pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque that's on the site holy to Muslims and Jews, captured by Israel in 1967. Open relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel could clear the path for Saudis to visit. Fahda says she's certain the crown prince will do the right thing.

FAHDA: We're always with him. So whatever he will say, we're going to be with him.

TANIS: Sultan agrees, noting he'll follow Mohammed bin Salman's lead no matter what. But he proceeds to tentatively offer his opinion on the matter.

SULTAN: (Through interpreter) I don't think the time has come for the Saudi people or other Muslim nations to be on the same side with Israel unless Israel changes its current policies toward Palestinians.

TANIS: But of course, he adds, as a nation, our politics are always with our government.

Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.