Updated Jul 15, 2022 - World

Biden fist bumps Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Biden fist bumps Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Royal Court of Saudi Arabia /Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

President Biden shared a fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after arriving in the Gulf kingdom for a high-stakes visit.

Why it matters: Biden once vowed to make the kingdom a "pariah," and U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained over a number of issues, including the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

State of play: Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia is aimed at recalibrating U.S. relations with the Gulf kingdom.

  • It will include a bilateral meeting with King Salman and MBS, as well as a summit with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
  • King Salman and MBS did not come to welcome Biden at the Jeddah airport. The U.S. president was welcomed by the governor of Mecca region, as well as the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.
  • But MBS welcomed Biden at the entrance of Al-Salam Palace ahead of the U.S. president's meeting with King Salman. Biden shook hands with King Salman at the beginning of their meeting.

The Biden-MBS fist bump garnered outrage from Democrats and others, including Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of Khashoggi, and Washington Post publisher and CEO Fred Ryan.

  • "The fist bump between President Biden and Mohammed bin Salman was worse than a handshake — it was shameful. It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking," Ryan said in a statement.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a briefing with reporters onboard Air Force One en route to Jeddah Friday that Biden is committed to discussing with Saudi leaders human rights in general and in the context of the Khashoggi's murder.

  • On Thursday, Biden said: "My position on Khashoggi has been so clear. If anyone doesn’t understand it, in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven’t been around for a while."

During the summit with Arab leaders, Biden will present a vision and strategy for U.S. involvement in the Middle East, Sullivan said.

  • Sullivan stressed Biden will make clear that he would not allow a vacuum that will allow China and Russia to have more influence in the Middle East.
  • “Russia, China and Iran are the main countries who are against this visit," Sullivan said.
  • The national security adviser added that Biden will discuss energy security with Saudi leaders, but he stressed that no new announcements on oil production are expected during the visit. “We hope to see more action by OPEC plus in the coming weeks," Sullivan said.

The big picture: Saudi Arabia late on Thursday announced it would allow Israeli airlines to use its airspace — marking the first time the kingdom has allowed unlimited use of its airspace for Israeli airlines to fly to and from Israel.

  • The announcement came several hours after Axios reported that Israel approved the parameters of a deal around two strategic Red Sea islands which were of high importance to the Saudi officials.  
  • The deal around the islands and the overflights, which the U.S. has been quietly negotiating for months, is a significant foreign policy achievement for the Biden administration in the Middle East.
  • Biden noted Friday he is the "first president of the United States to fly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia." He also said Saudi Arabia's decision regarding the airspace "can help build momentum toward Israel's further integration into the region."
  • Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One on Friday “the airspace is cool."
  • “This is the first public step the Saudis took towards Israel and its historic. It is on a path that we hope could lead to normalization," Sullivan added. "This is a first step but a big step. I think we will have more things to say about issues related to promoting peace in the region”.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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