President Joe Biden said he brought up the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the start of his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“I said, very simply, that an American president being silent on a human rights issue is inconsistent with who we are and who I am,” Mr Biden said.
“I will always stand up for our values.”
US intelligence thinks the crown prince likely approved of killing US-based writer Khashoggi four years ago.
Mr Biden said Prince Mohammed had claimed he was “not personally responsible” for the death. “I indicated that I thought he was,” replied the president.
It was the first meeting 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 around the world.
For now, it seemed like they were taking steps forward together. Mr. Biden announced that American peacekeepers would leave the island of Tiran in the Red Sea by the end of the year.
Saudi Arabia hopes to develop tourist attractions there, as part of the kingdom’s efforts to develop its economy beyond oil. Due to 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 Israeli-Saudi relations. .
The deal followed an earlier announcement that the Saudis were ending strict restrictions on Israeli commercial flights over their territory.
Mr Biden also said progress was being made to extend the ceasefire in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia had fought Iran-backed militants, resulting in a humanitarian crisis.
The president’s three hours at the royal palace in Jeddah was seen as a diplomatic victory for the crown prince, who has tried to rehabilitate his image, attract investment to the kingdom for his reform plans and strengthen security relations of the kingdom with the United States.
Mr Biden appeared to approach it as a necessary if somewhat unpleasant step to improve relations with the world’s top oil exporter at a time of rising oil prices and concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The meeting sparked outrage from critics who believed Mr Biden was reneging on his human rights pledges, particularly in relation to the killing of Khashoggi, a US-based journalist who wrote for the Washington Post.
“The fist bump between President Biden and Mohammad bin Salman was worse than a handshake – it was shameful,” said a statement from Fred Ryan, the Post’s editor.
“He projected a level of privacy and comfort that offers MBS the unwarranted redemption he so desperately seeks.”