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Biden avoids a handshake with Saudi crown prince, but fist bump doesn't go over well

In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden, with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)
In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden, with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Updated July 15, 2022 at 4:40 PM ET

In the end, President Biden went with a fist bump.

Biden greeted Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman with an outstretched closed fist when he arrived on Friday at Al-Salam Royal Palace for meetings with bin Salman and his father, Saudi Arabia's King Salman.

The greeting had been a question of intense speculation leading up to the controversial meeting in Saudi Arabia. When running for president, Biden had vowed to treat the country as a "pariah," due to a long string of human rights abuses, including the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi – a killing in a Saudi operation that U.S. intelligence assessed had been approved by the crown prince.

At a press conference after the 2 1/2-hour meeting with bin Salman and other Saudi officials, Biden said he did bring up Khashoggi's death.

"I made my view crystal-clear," Biden said. "I said, very straightforwardly, for an American president to be silent on an issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am."

Biden added that bin Salman denied responsibility for the killing, but the president said he emphasized that he thought the Saudi crown prince was responsible.

The press conference, announced at the last minute by the White House, came after a day of unusually restricted press access to Biden.

The fist bump greeting took place outside of the presence of U.S. media traveling with Biden. (The kingdom's state media captured video of the greeting, and the Saudi Arabian government was quick to distribute images of it across social media platforms.)

Both men both spoke during the brief window that the press was allowed into the room at the beginning of their meeting, but reporters in the room were not able to hear either man's remarks. And unlike when Biden meets with foreign leaders in most other settings, television and radio reporters were not allowed to carry boom microphones into the meeting to better pick up the audio.

Biden exited the palace out of sight of the press, as well.

The unusual secrecy, and avoidance of a handshake, did not stop the criticism. In fact, it heightened it.

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

Even staunch Democratic allies like California Rep. Adam Schiff blasted Biden's decision to meet with bin Salman.

Perhaps in response to the pushback, Biden spoke to the press just before 11 p.m. in Jeddah to list off all the agreements the meeting led to, including Saudi Arabia's decision to allow, for the first time, commercial aircraft to fly directly from Israel to the kingdom.

The meeting came together as global oil supplies tightened and prices soared due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Biden announced a trip to Saudi Arabia, and the White House swapped out his early "pariah" pledge for the language of diplomatic realism.

Though White House officials had repeatedly denied that Biden would directly address oil production, Biden said Friday that U.S. and Saudi officials "had a good discussion" on the global oil supply, and indicated the oil-rich nation will soon increase its production output.

Biden also framed his meetings in Israel and Saudi Arabia as part of a broader push for increased stability and peace in the Middle East region.

Still, even before Friday's criticism, it was clear the White House was defensive about the optics of Biden greeting and sitting down with the heads of a government he had dismissed during the campaign as "having very little redeeming value."

When White House officials announced that, due to the risk of COVID-19, Biden would limit handshakes during his Middle East trip, it was widely seen as an attempt to side-step what could have been an awkward and enduring image of Biden and bin Salman would shake hands.

At earlier stops in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Biden frequently lapsed into handshakes.

After Friday's meetings with the Saudi king and crown prince, Biden will spend Saturday holding broader discussions with leaders from several Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.