Biden fist bumps Saudi crown prince on trip that seeks to reset ties

Published July 15, 2022
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fist bumps US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Al Salman Palace, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022.—Reuters/Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fist bumps US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Al Salman Palace, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022.—Reuters/Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court

US President Joe Biden gave a fist bump to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi state television showed on Friday, during a trip to Saudi Arabia that is being watched for body language and rhetoric as Washington seeks to reset relations.

White House officials had worked hard on the optics of the meeting between Biden and the crown prince, known as MbS, who Biden has criticized for his role in the killing of Washington Post journalist and political opponent Jamal Khashoggi.

In the end, it was a fist bump and wordless exchange in front of the king's royal palace in Jeddah that is likely to be the defining image of the visit by the US president, who once promised to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" state.

The footage of the fist bump was tweeted by the official Saudi Press Agency.

The president’s aides suggested on Wednesday before he landed in Israel that Biden would avoid handshakes during his trip due to the rapidly spreading new coronavirus subvariant — but within minutes of his arrival Biden dispensed of the rules and was shaking hands.

He continued shaking hands during the Israel leg of his Middle East tour.

At the start of Biden's Middle East trip, officials said he would avoid close contacts, such as shaking hands, as a precaution against Covid-19. But the president ended up engaging in hand-shaking during the Israel leg of the tour.

After meeting the king, Biden and his team began a working session with MbS and Saudi ministers.

Typically, the White House releases names ahead of landing of foreign officials who will welcome the president, but this time details only came out after Biden left the airport.

When former US President Donald Trump, who enjoyed close ties with MbS, visited Saudi Arabia in 2017 he was met by King Salman, who has made few recent public appearances. The Makkah governor met France's president when he visited Jeddah late last year.

The sensitive visit will be closely watched for body language and rhetoric and will test Biden's ability to reset relations with the crown prince, the kingdom's de facto ruler.

US intelligence concluded that MbS directly approved the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, while the crown prince denies having a role in the killing.

Biden wants to "recalibrate" Washington's relations with Saudi Arabia and not rupture them, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan stressed.

The US president said on Thursday his position on Khashoggi's murder was "absolutely" clear.

Biden made his "pariah" comment less than two years ago after the journalist's killing and while campaigning for president.

Biden said he would raise human rights in Saudi Arabia, but he did not say specifically if he would broach the Khashoggi murder with its leaders.

Saudi ambassador to Washington Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, who was part of the Saudi greeting party, reiterated in an article for Politico the kingdom's "abhorrence" of the killing, describing it as a gruesome atrocity, and said it cannot define US-Saudi ties.

She said the relationship should also not be seen in the "outdated and reductionist" oil-for-security paradigm.

"The world has changed and the existential dangers facing us all, including food and energy security and climate change, cannot be resolved without an effective US-Saudi alliance."

No immediate oil boost

Jeddah hosts a larger gathering of Arab leaders on Saturday.

Biden will discuss energy security with leaders of Gulf oil producers and hopes to see more action by OPEC+ to boost output, but there were unlikely to be any bilateral announcements from the talks, Sullivan told reporters en route to Jeddah.

"We believe any further action taken to ensure that there is sufficient energy to protect the health of the global economy, it will be done in the context of OPEC+," said Sullivan.

"We are hopeful that we will see additional actions by OPEC+ in coming weeks."

The OPEC+ group that includes Russia meets next on Aug. 3.

Biden will also encourage peace and press for a more integrated Middle East during his trip, an administration official said.

Topics include strengthening a truce in Yemen, "balance" in energy markets and technological cooperation in 5G and 6G.

Ahead of the visit, Saudi Arabia said it would open its airspace to all air carriers, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel, in what Biden described as a historic and important step towards building a more integrated and stable Middle East.

Biden was the first American president to fly from Israel directly to Jeddah, a step the White House says represents a “small symbol” of warming Israeli-Saudi ties.

Two years ago, Riyadh gave a tacit nod for the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalise relations with Israel.

The US-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords established a new axis in the region, where Gulf states share Israel's concerns about Iran's nuclear and missiles programmes and proxy network.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have for years vied for regional influence but launched direct talks last year in an effort to contain tensions.

The Saudi ambassador said US-Saudi efforts to ensure peace and security should focus on enhancing cooperation and "reinforcing a rules-based system" to confront the "vision of chaos promoted by Iran".

During his visit to Israel, Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a joint pledge to deny Iran nuclear weapons, which the Islamic Republic denies seeking.

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