Biden exchanges fist bump with Saudi crown prince before controversial meeting

·4 min read

President Joe Biden exchanged a fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, kicking off a highly scrutinized meeting Friday in a country that Biden once vowed to make a "pariah."

The crown prince, also known as MBS, and other members of the royal family greeted Biden at Al Salam Royal Palace after the president arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for delicate talks on energy, human rights and security in the Middle East.

Biden has faced criticism for meeting with the crown prince, who U.S. officials believe ordered the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – and the fist bump only amplified the condemnation.

"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," Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who chairs the House intelligence committee, said in a tweet. "One fist bump is worth a thousand words."

Fred Ryan, the publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, slammed Biden's greeting of bin Salman, as "shameful" and "worse than a handshake."

"It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption that he has been desperately seeking," Ryan said in a statement posted on Twitter.

More: Biden says 'ground not ripe' for Israel-Palestine peace process in appearance with Palestinian President Abbas

Biden told reporters afterward that he raised Khashoggi's murder during his meeting with bin Salman, pushing back against criticism that he ignored Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

"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 said, recounting what he told the crown prince.

"He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it. I indicated that I thought he was."

When asked how he can assure another murder like Khashoggi's doesn't happen again, Biden responded: "What a silly question. How could I possibly be sure of any of that? I just made it clear if anything occurs like that again, they'll get that response and much more."

Told that Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, said the blood of the crown prince’s next victim is on his hands, Biden said: “I’m sorry she feels that way.”

The series of meetings between Biden and Saudi leaders lasted more than two hours. Biden met first with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who Biden greeted with a handshake, according to video footage released by Saudis. Journalists were not allowed in the room.

The president later sat down separately with the crown prince – the first such encounter between the two leaders – and other Saudi ministers. Flanked by aides, Biden and bin Salman faced each other at a long rectangular table. The crown prince spoke first, then Biden, but reporters in the room could not hear their remarks.

Ahead of Biden's trip to the Middle East, which began with a multiple-day swing through Israel, officials said Biden would refrain from hand shakes with foreign leaders out of concerns about the COVID-19 virus. But in Israel, Biden – a tactile politician known for hugs and warm embraces – shook hands with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several others.

The no hand-shake rule seemed like a way to avoid to a potentially awkward interaction between Biden and the crown prince. But in the end, the fist bump was no less subtle, and Biden shook hands with the king.

More: Could COVID help Biden avoid a controversial interaction in the Mideast?

President Joe Biden participates in a working session with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al Salman Royal Palace, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Jeddah. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) ORG XMIT: SAEV101
President Joe Biden participates in a working session with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al Salman Royal Palace, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Jeddah. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) ORG XMIT: SAEV101

Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who had been critical of the Saudi government, was killed and dismembered inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. Khashoggi had gone to the consulate to get documents he needed for his upcoming wedding. The crown prince has denied any involvement in Khashoggi's murder.

More: Biden defends Saudi Arabia visit after Khashoggi murder, says he's 'never been quiet' on human rights

As a presidential candidate, Biden promised to make the kingdom a “pariah” state because of its human rights abuses.

Even though he's now met with the crown prince, Biden said he doesn't regret using that term.

"I don't regret anything I said. What happened to Khashoggi was outrageous."

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden exchanges fist bump with Saudi crown prince to open meeting