A cold fist bump between the US president and Prince Bin Salman dramatizes the discomfort over the Democratic leader’s trip to a country he promised to turn into a pariah state
There was no hug, no pat on the back, no sad handshake. A cold fist bump (of the kind that made the coronavirus fashionable around the world) served as a greeting between Joe Biden and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed bin Salman, upon the first’s arrival in Jeddah. A gesture sometimes encloses a world in diplomacy, and this speaks, not so much of pandemic precautions (despite what the White House has tried to show, without success) but of the discomfort due to the visit of the president of the United States to the kingdom from the desert, a country that he promised to send during his 2020 presidential campaign to the corner of the “rogue states” for its responsibility in the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose death in the Istanbul consulate in 2018 is attributed by US intelligence services to the crown prince. Bin Salman’s father, King Salman bin Abdelaziz, has been shaken by Biden this Friday.
Since the murder of The Washington Post columnist, a Saudi resident in the United States, many things have happened, but above all one thing: the war in Ukraine came, realpolitik forced Biden to rethink his priorities and human rights passed to a background. He needs the desert regime to contain oil prices, which are out of control in the United States, and, incidentally, do something to silence criticism at home for his inaction on inflation, which this week has pulverized all records again. , with 9.1%. The meetings are expected to discuss a possible increase in oil production – although it is not clear that Riyadh has the capacity to increase it significantly – as well as measures to soften Saudi relations with Israel.
On Friday morning, just hours before Air Force One landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia announced its decision to open its airspace to planes coming from and going to Israel, which until now had been forced to circle the country. The decision has been interpreted by Biden as a gesture towards a greater integration of Israel in the region, and suggests Riyadh’s predisposition to participate in this new climate, in which it already has countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain, besides Egypt and Jordan.
Among Biden’s objectives is also to curb China’s influence in the area and calm the tension with Iran, as well as the war in Yemen. The Saudi state news agency has limited itself to reporting that during the meeting held this Friday, the Saudi and US delegations reviewed the historical relations between the two countries and discussed ways to strengthen them to serve their interests.
The US media have made this week almost a state issue of the etiquette that Biden (who prides himself on being a close leader) was going to observe before Bin Salman. Khashoggi was a prominent journalist in Washington and many of the analysts who have lavished on the news channels these days knew him personally, so his murder especially shocked the city’s media establishment. So much expectation had generated that the White House announced at the beginning of the tour that Biden, a population at risk at 79 years old, would not shake hands with other leaders as a precaution against the coronavirus, which in the United States is starring in a new wave. With the acting Israeli Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, he shook his fists, but with the leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, he did shake hands.
Finally, Mohamed bin Salman has gone out to receive the car that has taken Biden from the King Abdulaziz international airport in Jeddah, where he arrived shortly before 6:00 p.m., local time, to the Al Salam Royal Palace. The sober and long-awaited meeting has been broadcast on Saudi state television Al Ejbariya. After bumping fists, they have entered the building to celebrate the first meeting of the last stop of the US president’s trip to the Middle East, which started on Wednesday in Israel and has ended up this Friday in Palestine, where he has appeared before the press with Mahmoud Abbas.
In another meeting with the media, shared with Lapid, the US president refused on Thursday to specify whether he would raise the Khashoggi issue with Bin Salman. “My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear, and I have never been silent on human rights,” Biden said Thursday. “The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia is to further the interests of the United States in a way that I think we have an opportunity to reassert our influence in the Middle East.”
The White House National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, told the journalists accompanying him on his trip that the president intends to speak about the importance of respecting human rights. Sullivan also assured that they would discuss energy security with the Saudi authorities, but said that no imminent announcement on an increase in oil production was expected and that, if it did occur, it would be announced in the context of OPEC+.
Biden’s discomfort with the visit to Saudi Arabia and his need to justify himself had become apparent as the time drew near. At a press conference during the NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June, the US president tried to play down the importance of the trip by stating that his main objective was not to meet with the Saudi authorities, but to attend a meeting with leaders of several countries in the region that happened to take place in the desert kingdom. He also suggested that he was actually doing it to benefit Israel in its efforts to speed up its regional integration. And he even hinted that he didn’t know if he was going to meet the Saudi king and the crown prince. Biden also published a column in the Washington Post this past weekend to defend his decision and frame it as a “reorientation” of relations with Riyadh rather than a break.