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.
Despite the casual greeting, 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 meeting other leaders.
Until now, Biden had refused to speak to Prince Mohammed, the presumed heir to the throne currently held by his father, King Salman. Biden has 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.
Biden was greeted by Mecca’s governor, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., Princess Reema bint Bandar, and then walked down a lavender carpet to a limousine that whisked him to the palace.
The president was scheduled to sit down with King Salman, the 86-year-old monarch who has suffered from poor health, including two hospitalizations this year. Then he was to participate in a broader meeting that would include Prince Mohammed, the presumed heir to the throne who is known by his initials MBS.
A crucial relationship
The future of the region, including the possibility of closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as the ebb and flow of the world’s oil supply could depend on the relationship between the 79-year-old U.S. president and the 36-year-old Saudi royal.
The visit may already be seen as a win for Prince Mohammed.
His rise to power has ushered in a new era for the kingdom as it works to build a homegrown military and weapons industry, wean itself from reliance on oil for revenue and build ties with Israel and other nations as a hedge against the perception that the U.S. is a less reliable security partner.
The meeting with Biden could bestow greater legitimacy on the crown prince’s plans and his path to the throne.
There’s 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.
Meetings over greetings
Asked if Biden would shake hands with him, a senior administration official demurred and noted the White House is “focused on the meetings, not the greetings.”
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 further rupture in U.S.-Saudi relations.
“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear. And I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” Biden has said.
“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.”
Saudis signal end to limits on Israeli flights
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 travelled to the West Bank on Friday to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and others before flying to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis took a step toward normalization of relations with Israel before Biden’s visit, announcing early Friday that it was opening its airspace to “all air carriers,” signaling the end of its strict limits on Israeli flights flying over its territory.
Biden hailed the decision as “an important step towards building a more integrated and stable Middle East region,” adding that the decision “can help build momentum toward Israel’s further integration into the region, including with Saudi Arabia.”
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