During a visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday, U.S President Joe Biden met and notably fist bumped the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS. At the Al-Salam Royal Palace Biden held meetings with with bin Salman and his father, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. While running for president Biden had previously said he would treat the country as a “pariah,” due to a long string of human rights abuses, including the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a vocal Saudi critic, who was hacked apart in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The assassination was a Saudi operation that U.S. intelligence assessed had been approved by the crown prince. The crown prince denies having any role in the killing. The meeting between the two is being watched for body language and rhetoric as Washington seeks to reset relations with the Middle Eastern nation.
Biden’s aides suggested before he landed in Israel – the first leg of his trip – that Biden would avoid handshakes during his trip due to the rapidly spreading new coronavirus subvariant. However within minutes of his arrival in Israel Biden dispensed with the rules and was shaking hands. He continued shaking hands during the Israel visit before heading to Saudi Arabia. “For some reason, Biden’s political team thinks a fist bump is less of a statement of friendship than a handshake and planned to have him fist bump everyone in order to make it less notable that he wasn’t shaking MbS’ hand,” said Kristen Fontenrose, a fellow of foreign relations at the Atlantic Council and a former Trump administration official. On arrival in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, Biden was greeted by Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca province who he also fist bumped.
At a press conference after the 2 1/2-hour meeting with bin Salman and other Saudi officials, Biden said he did bring up Khashoggi’s death. “I made my view crystal-clear,” Biden said. “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.” Biden added that MbS denied responsibility for the killing, but the president said he emphasized that he thought the Saudi crown prince was responsible.
“The fist bump between President Biden and Mohammad bin Salman was worse than a handshake — it was shameful,” Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan said in a statement. “It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking.” Staunch Democratic allies like California Rep. Adam Schiff blasted Biden’s decision to meet with bin Salman, tweeting “If we ever needed a visual reminder of the continuing grip oil-rich autocrats have on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, we got it today. One fist bump is worth a thousand words.”
The meeting came together as global oil supplies tightened and prices soared due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden announced a trip to Saudi Arabia, and the White House swapped out his early “pariah” pledge for the language of diplomatic realism. While White House officials had repeatedly denied that Biden would directly address oil production, Biden said Friday that U.S. and Saudi officials “had a good discussion” on the global oil supply, and indicated the oil-rich nation will soon increase its production output. Biden also framed his meetings in Israel and Saudi Arabia as part of a broader push for increased stability and peace in the Middle East region.