It took less than 24 hours in Saudi Arabia for US President Joe Biden to tarnish an image he has long cultivated: that of a fierce defender of human rights.
The life of any politician is dotted with campaign pledges that ultimately backfire, and for Biden that list now includes his 2019 vow to make the Gulf kingdom a “pariah” over its human rights record. Similarly his solemn description, delivered last year on the US’ Independence Day, of Washington’s role on the global stage: “We stand as a beacon to the world.”
It was difficult for many to reconcile those words with the single-most searing image from Biden’s first visit to the Middle East as president: his fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS.
Photo: AFP / MEDIA OFFICE OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN /BANDAR ALGALOUD
US intelligence officials believe the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, “approved” the 2018 operation that led to the killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Taken outside a palace in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, the fist bump image was immediately distributed by official Saudi Arabian news outlets before doing the rounds on social media.
It eventually landed on the front page of the Washington Post, for which Khashoggi was a contributing columnist.
Prior to Biden’s arrival in Jeddah, the White House took several measures to try to mitigate blowback from an encounter it knew was coming.
Biden published a column in the Washington Post explaining his reasons for making the trip, saying he wanted to “strengthen a strategic partnership” and that “fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad.”
At the start of the tour, which took him to Israel and the West Bank before Jeddah, his communications team said Biden would limit physical contact with those he met, citing COVID-19 concerns.
Some journalists immediately speculated that the measures — which Biden ended up not fully adhering to — were motivated less by public health and more by fear of an awkward photograph of Biden and the Saudi prince.
In the end, the first bump in Jeddah “was worse than a handshake — it was shameful,” Washington Post CEO Fred Ryan said in a statement. “It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking.”
The travelling press corps was not present for the scene. By the time they arrived at the palace in Jeddah, the two leaders had already gone inside.
White House-accredited journalists faced further restrictions as Biden held his meetings with the Saudi leadership. They were only allowed in briefly for a meeting of the US and Saudi Arabian government delegations, and they were kept some distance from the negotiating table.
Brief statements from Biden and Prince Mohammed were rendered inaudible as boom microphones were not permitted.
After his meetings with Saudi royals ended on Friday evening, the White House hastily arranged for Biden to deliver brief remarks and take a few questions.
Biden told journalists that he had raised the Khashoggi case “at the top” of his meeting with the Saudi prince, adding that he had made clear “what I thought of it at the time and what I think of it now.”
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