JEDDAH: 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 desert kingdom a “pariah” over its human rights record.
Similarly his solemn description, delivered last year on 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.
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 news outlets before doing the rounds on social media.
It eventually landed on the front page of The Washington Post, where 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 Post explaining his reasons for making the trip, saying he wanted to “strengthen a strategic partnership” while insisting that “fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad”.
At the start of the tour, which took him to Jerusalem and Bethlehem before Jeddah, his communications team said Biden would limit physical contact with those he met, citing coronavirus 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 photo-op with Prince Mohammed, often referred to by his initials, MBS.
In the end, the first-bump in Jeddah “was worse than a handshake — it was shameful”, the Post’s 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 wasn’t present for the scene. By the time they arrived at the palace in Jeddah, the two leaders had already gone inside.