A crucial meeting to repair one of the world’s most important diplomatic relationships began with a fist bump Friday as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomed U.S. President Joe Biden at a royal palace.
The first encounter, captured by Saudi television, occurred as Biden stepped out of his presidential limousine in Jeddah for a visit that is intended to reset their countries’ longstanding partnership.
There was little evidence of any warmth between the leaders, and none of the backslapping or smiles that Biden or the crown prince usually display when greeting other leaders.
Biden had long refused to speak to Prince Mohammed, the presumed heir to the throne currently held by his father, King Salman. And he harshly criticized the oil-rich kingdom for its human rights abuses, particularly the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based journalist.
But those concerns have since been eclipsed by other challenges, including rising gas prices and Iranian aggression in the Middle East. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is looking to bolster its security relationship with the United States and seeking investments to transform its economy into one that’s less reliant on pumping oil.
The Saudis held a subdued welcome for Biden at the airport in Jeddah, with none of the ceremony that accompanied his stop this week in Israel.
The president sat down with King Salman, the 86-year-old monarch who has suffered from poor health, including two hospitalizations this year.
Afterward, Biden and Prince Mohammed held a broader meeting with several advisers. There had been considerable speculation about both the choreography and the substance of how Biden, who had vowed as a presidential candidate to treat the Saudis as a “pariah” for their human rights record, would go about interacting with Prince Mohammed.
Access for journalists was limited. The White House traveling press corps was not present when Biden fist bumped the crown prince, and reporters were only briefly allowed into their meeting. Almost none of their remarks could be heard. Biden did not answer when reporters asked if he still considered Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” nor did Prince Mohammed respond to a shouted question whether he would apologize to Khashoggi’s family.
Last year Biden’s administration approved the release of a U.S. intelligence finding that determined the crown prince likely approved Khashoggi’s killing. The release of the report caused a rupture in U.S.-Saudi relations.
Before arriving in Saudi Arabia, Biden would not say if he would raise the issue directly with Prince Mohammed, and he did not do so within earshot of reporters on Friday.
“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear. And I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” Biden said earlier this week. “The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia, though, is much broader. It’s to promote U.S. interests — promote U.S. interests in a way that I think we have an opportunity to reassert what I think we made a mistake of walking away from: our influence in the Middle East.”
Biden arrived in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on the third day of a four-day swing through the Middle East. He spent the first two days meeting with Israeli officials and traveled to the West Bank on Friday to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and others before flying to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi visit is one of the most delicate that Biden has faced on the international stage. Any kind of respectful greeting that Biden can manage, and the Saudi crown prince can reflect back, might help both sides soothe relations.
But it could also open Biden, already floundering in the polls at home, to deeper criticism that he is backtracking on his pledges to put human rights at the center of foreign policy.
Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, said that, with the visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden was backing down on human rights.
“It’s a very huge backing down actually,” Cengiz told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. “It’s heartbreaking and disappointing. And Biden will lose his moral authority by putting oil and expediency over principles and values.”
Biden’s criticism of the Saudis as a candidate became more tempered in recent months as Russia’s war on Ukraine aggravated what was already a global supply crunch for oil and gas. Elevated gasoline prices have driven inflation in the United States to its highest levels in four decades.