US President Joe Biden ended Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmans “pariah” status with a fist-bump when they met for the first time in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday.
Biden switched to a full handshake with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, putting the fist-bump in perspective.
Biden’s first meeting with MSB, as the crown prince is popularly known, has become the most anticipated moment of his first visit to West Asia (Middle East), which took him first to Israel and Palestine and then Saudi Arabia, an ally that has been put on ice by the Biden administration over MSB’s role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who lived and worked in the US.
As a candidate for the White House, Biden had famously vowed to turn Saudi Arabia into a global “pariah” for the Khashoggi murder.
That all ended on Friday.
Pictures of the fist-bump and MBS receiving the American leader were promptly put out by the Saudi government keen to demonstrate the Crown Prince’s repaired relationship with the US.
But Biden could raise the killing in his meetings with the Saudis.
“I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” Biden said at a press conference in Israel. When pressed, he said that he always brings up human rights, but said that his “position on Khashoggi is so clear — if anyone doesn’t understand it in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, they haven’t been around for a while.”
Biden’s first meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince had become the most awaited moment of the trip with US officials constantly confronted with questions about it.
The American leader had also faced severe criticism for agreeing to visit Saudi Arabia and meeting the Crown Prince. He pushed back in an OpEd in The Washington Post, saying, “I know that there are many who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia. My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank.”
He had added: “From the start, my aim was to reorient but not rupture relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years.”
Biden will start his Saudi visit with bilateral meetings with Saudi officials, one of which is underway now. He will have bilateral engagements Saturday with the leadership of Egypt, the UAE, and Iraq, and then participate in the GCC+3 Summit. He is expected to deliver a major policy speech at the summit on his vision and strategy for West Asia.
Biden’ intent for the trip is on “ensuring that there is not a vacuum in the Middle East for China and Russia to fill”, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reports on the way to Jeddah, adding, “American leadership and an American engagement will be a feature of US policy in this region, and that we intend to play a critical role in this strategically vital region on an ongoing basis.”