President Joe Biden greeted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a fist bump after arriving in Saudi Arabia on Friday ― creating a historic image that symbolizes how Biden has embraced the controversial prince.
Bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to U.S. intelligence that Biden made public last year. He has also directed the brutal Saudi military campaign in Yemen and led a crackdown on Saudi human rights activists and government critics.
Just last month, the president had told reporters: “I’m not going to meet with MBS. I’m going to an international meeting, and he’s going to be part of it.”
Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi activist whose cleric father has been detained by Saudi authorities since 2017, tweeted Friday that Biden was bumping “the same hands that have blood from killing Khashoggi and people of Yemen and activists inside!”
When he ran for president, Biden said bin Salman’s track record showed there was “very little social redeeming value” in the prince’s leadership. He promised to reshape the historic U.S.-Saudi relationship by urging better behavior on the Saudis’ part.
But once in office, Biden took only limited steps to reduce U.S. support for the kingdom and pursue accountability for the Khashoggi killing and other Saudi abuses ― an approach that upset lawmakers and watchdog groups. Meanwhile, the prince and his allies responded with increasingly vocal scorn for the president.
This year, a small group of White House officials ― led by Brett McGurk, an adviser who previously served under President Donald Trump ― pushed Biden to draw closer to the kingdom after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. They argued that better ties between Washington and Riyadh would help emphasize U.S. leadership in the Middle East, limiting Russian and Chinese influence, and that the move could address problems like high oil prices.
The ultimate plan for Biden’s trip is unlikely to address those concerns, however, because it is largely about the priorities of the prince, many national security experts say.
In a June 7 letter to Biden, leading Democratic legislators wrote that while Saudi Arabia has been and should remain an American partner, the president should “redouble... efforts to recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi relationship.”
Biden aides attempted to sell the visit to skeptics in Congress and the policy community, but ultimately failed to convince many doubters, including within the administration. Some officials are calling the trip a “Summit for Autocracy,” in a jab at Biden’s pledge to champion U.S. values and his “Summit for Democracy” last December.
“Although such inconsistency may seem like standard fare in foreign policy, its consequences... are especially significant,” Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International and the former United Nations investigator on the Khashoggi case, wrote in a July 13 essay. “Just when the international order is under threat, Biden’s about-face on Saudi Arabia will undermine his administration’s goal of building a global consensus condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine and defending a rules-based order.”
On Friday, Hatice Cengiz, who Khashoggi had planned to marry before his assassination, tweeted what she thought the slain Saudi would say to Biden if he were alive today: “The blood of MBS’s next victim is on your hands.”