Joe Biden's Middle East Trip Defined by Fist Bumps, Blunders and Oil Talks

Joe Biden said in a recent op-ed that his first visit to the Middle East as president was to start "a new and more promising chapter of America's engagement there."

But the trip may be defined by the president's blunders and an image of him fist-bumping Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Ahead of the trip, White House aides had said that Biden would limit physical contact and avoid handshakes during the trip due to COVID-19 concerns.

Those concerns appeared to fall by the wayside soon after Biden landed at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday when he shook hands with former Israeli Prime Ministers Naftali Bennet and Benjamin Netanyahu.

During his remarks at the airport, Biden misspoke and said people should keep alive "the honor of the Holocaust" before quickly correcting it to "horror."

Some suggested the no-handshake policy was an effort to avoid a problematic image of Biden shaking hands with Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler when he headed to Jeddah on Friday.

Biden sought to reset the stained U.S.-Saudi relationship by meeting with Saudi leaders as he seeks to tackle soaring gas prices in the U.S., driven partly by Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

But he was swiftly and widely criticized for beginning the meeting by fist-bumping the crown prince, known by his initials MBS.

Joe Biden fist bumps Saudi crown prince
In this image released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival at Al-Salam palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP

U.S. intelligence agencies said the crown prince likely approved the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who was critical of the Saudi regime.

As a presidential candidate, Biden had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" in response to the killing but in a recent op-ed for The Post, he argued that reorienting, rather than rupturing relations would better serve U.S. interests.

Fred Ryan, the publisher and CEO of The Post, said it was "shameful" that Biden had fist-bumped the Saudi crown prince.

That was "worse than a handshake," Ryan said. "It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking."

Biden's visit and new policy towards Saudi Arabia amount to a betrayal of Khashoggi, Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, a nonprofit organization founded by Khashoggi, recently told Newsweek.

Asked by a reporter if he regretted the fist bump after arriving back in Washington D.C., Biden replied: "Why don't you guys talk about something that matters? I'm happy to answer a question that matters."

Biden on Friday told reporters that he had raised Khashoggi's killing during his meeting with the crown prince. "I raised it at the top of the meeting, making it clear what I thought of it at the time and what I think of it now," he said.

"I made my view crystal clear. I said very straightforwardly: For an American President to be silent on an issue of human rights, is this consistent with—inconsistent with who we are and who I am? I'll always stand up for our values."

That exchange brought tensions to a conversation where Biden was hoping to reach an agreement on oil production that could help drive down gas prices as inflation reached historic levels—issues that could spell doom for the Democrats in the November midterm elections.

Biden left the Middle East without any immediate promises on increased oil production.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that an announcement was not expected and that news could come when OPEC+ member countries meet in August.

Biden was also optimistic that oil-producing nations could boost production soon.

"I'm doing all I can to increase the supply for the United States of America, which I expect to happen," he said on Friday. "The Saudis share that urgency, and based on our discussions today, I expect we'll see further steps in the coming weeks."

Newsweek has contacted The White House for comment.