President Joe Biden said he raised the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the beginning of his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“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,” Mr Biden said.
“I’ll always stand up for our values.”
US intelligence believes that the crown prince likely approved the killing of Khashoggi, a US-based writer, four years ago.
Mr Biden said Prince Mohammed claimed that he was “not personally responsible” for the death. “I indicated I thought he was,” the president said he replied.
It was the first encounter between the two leaders, beginning with a fist bump outside the royal palace in Jeddah, in a relationship that could reshape security partnerships in the Middle East and the flow of oil worldwide.
For now, it appeared that they were taking incremental steps forward together. Mr Biden announced that US peacekeepers would leave the Red Sea island of Tiran by the end of the year.
Saudi Arabia hopes to develop tourist attractions there, part of the kingdom’s effort to expand its economy beyond oil. Because of a complex diplomatic arrangement governing control of the strategically located island, America’s departure required Israel’s assent, and the deal was the latest reflection of warmer relations between the Israelis and Saudis.
The agreement followed an earlier announcement that the Saudis were ending strict limits on Israeli commercial flights over their territory.
Mr Biden also said progress was being made on extending the ceasefire in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia had been battling Iran-backed militants, leading to a humanitarian crisis.
The president’s three hours at the royal palace in Jeddah were seen as a diplomatic win for the crown prince, who has tried to rehabilitate his image, draw investments to the kingdom for his reform plans and bolster the kingdom’s security relationship with the US.
Mr Biden seemed to approach it as a necessary if somewhat distasteful step to improve relations with the the world’s top oil exporter at a time of rising petrol prices and concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The meeting drew outrage from critics who believed Mr Biden was abandoning his pledges on human rights, particularly when it came to the murder of Khashoggi, a US-based journalist who wrote for The Washington Post.
“The fist bump between President Biden and Mohammed bin Salman was worse than a handshake — it was shameful,” said a statement from Fred Ryan, the Post’s publisher.
“It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking.”