Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia this week is a diplomatic challenge that comes with a thorny logistics question: Should the U.S. president be photographed meeting, or even shaking hands with, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman?
U.S. presidential visits, even with the closest of allies, are often highly choreographed affairs involving weeks of planning around seating arrangements, camera positions and how officials plan to walk into rooms to set up or avoid a handshake.
Biden, who called the Saudi government a “pariah” for its role in the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist and political opponent Jamal Khashoggi, is reluctantly meeting the crown prince, who U.S. intelligence believe was behind the killing.But political experts say the White House understands that a photo, and perhaps one of the two men shaking hands, may be both inevitable and necessary, as Washington seeks to reset its relationship with the oil-rich nation and with a young crown prince destined to rule the kingdom for many years to come.
“I think the White House’s expectation is they’re going to be in the same room. They’re not going to be far apart. At some point, the crown prince is likely to come over and extend his hand and some sort of image will emerge,” said Jon B. Alterman, a former State Department official and senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
When it does, Biden is sure to face criticism from Republican opposition who argue the president is courting a questionable ally to boost oil production over domestic producers and from his own Democrats, who have urged Biden to delay any meeting due to human rights concerns.
Saudi officials have not disclosed whether MbS, as he is also known, or the ailing King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud will greet Biden when he arrives in Jeddah. Other details, such as whether there will be a formal dinner, have not been released.
BIDEN: HUMAN RIGHTS ON THE AGENDA
The White House did not respond to questions about the optics of the trip.
But in a Washington Post opinion piece published on Saturday, Biden wrote: “I know that there are many who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia. My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad.”
He wrote that as president his job was to keep America strong and secure, put the country in the best possible position to outcompete China, counter Russian aggression and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world.
“To do these things, we have to engage directly with countries that can impact those outcomes. Saudi Arabia is one of them, and when I meet with Saudi leaders on Friday, my aim will be to strengthen a strategic partnership going forward that’s based on mutual interests and responsibilities, while also holding true to fundamental American values,” Biden wrote.
The White House National Security Council has said that Biden would participate in a bilateral meeting with the king and the crown prince, but Biden has sought to emphasize the meeting with a broader set of Gulf leaders. Typically, leaders will emerge from bilateral talks and jointly take questions from reporters, but it is unclear whether that is the plan.
BUSH, OBAMA, TRUMP SAUDI PHOTO OPS
Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner of the United States, thanks to oil and regional politics, and since the end of World War Two, U.S. presidents and Saudi kings have met on several occasions. The meetings have included many notable achievements but also produced a few awkward moments.
A photo of President George W. Bush holding hands with an aged Saudi King Abdullah during a stroll on the president’s Texas ranch in 2005 raised eyebrows among Americans uncomfortable with the Arab custom of men holding hands.
In 2009, Barack Obama greeted the Saudi King with what appeared to be a bow, and conservatives and Republicans were critical. The White House said that the president was “stooping” to look the feeble king in the eye while shaking hands.
In 2017, Donald Trump, who lambasted Obama for his alleged bow, greeted MbS with a firm, vertical handshake, then drew criticism from Democrats for bowing to MbS when accepting a civilian medal from the crown prince.
Biden on Friday will become the first president to fly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he wrote. He called it a small symbol of “the budding relations and steps toward normalization” between Israel and the Arab world.