Biden and Mohammed bin Salman: Can you fist-bump a “pariah”?

Mayank Chhaya –

Mayank Chayya

Can you or should you fist-bump someone you once called a “pariah” as U.S. President Joe Biden did with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)? More to the point, should an American president truckle under to MBS, who according to the CIA, ordered the macabre execution of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi?

The fist-bump has come like a gut-punch to many in Washington, particularly to Fred Ryan, the publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, who called it “shameful” and “worse than a handshake.”

“It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption that he has been desperately seeking,” Ryan said.

Even Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who chairs the House intelligence committee, felt revolted enough to say in a tweet, “If we ever needed a visual reminder of the continuing grip oil-rich autocrats have on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, we got it today. One fist bump is worth a thousand words.”

This was as stinging an indictment of Biden from a fellow and influential Democrat in the House as it can get. Biden tried to shrug-smile off the fist-bump but behind that was a complex diplomatic dance that he is having to do with Saudi Arabia at a time when gas prices in America have shot through the roof and are threatening to devour the president’s prospects of a second term.

As a strident critic of the Saudi government, which he once supported, Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. The journalist was visiting the mission to obtain documents for his pending wedding. Nearly four years hence MBS has only gained in political strength domestically as a modernizer who has liberalized several outdated practices within the kingdom, one of which is to allow women to drive.

As if to mitigate the fist-bump, which generally occurs between friendly dudes, Biden asserted that he mentioned the murder of Khashoggi at the top of his meeting with MBS, who in turn forcefully rejected his involvement. Pointing out that the murder was mentioned at the outset was Biden’s way of saying that he did not bend to any pressure. At the same time though that his meeting with MBS took place at all was symptomatic of America’s oil addiction. To be fair, given the terrible flux that the world oil supply has been forced into by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and America’s reflexive need to for relatively cheap petrol, Biden did not have much choice other than supping with someone whom he considers a “pariah.”

In terms of diplomatic choreography, Biden first met King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, whom he embraced and shook hands with before sitting down with MBS and his top government ministers.

It was clear that the president had his eyes set on bigger strategic objectives than steadfastly sticking to the pretensions of American values. One of those objectives was to normalize relations between Arab states and Israel, which he visited prior to coming to Saudi Arabia. As a small part of those, Saudi Arabia, which does not diplomatic relations with Israel, is expected to announce this week allowing all commercial flights to and from Israel to use its airspace.  Jeddah will also let Israel’s Muslim minority to fly directly to Saudi Arabia on charter flights as part of their annual pilgrimage Hajj to Mecca.

Biden said the historic lifting of the ban on Israel from using Saudi airspace, “can help build momentum toward Israel’s further integration into the region,”

The overarching idea appears to be to normalize Saudi-Israeli ties in some measure to achieve some level of peace in the region. Of course, there is next to no immediate prospect of the two sworn enemies achieving significant normalization, let alone full normalization.

It is a measure of how precariously balanced those ties are that Bident felt compelled to even point out that he was the first U.S. president to fly from Israel to Jeddah.

For his domestic constituency, the Biden-MBS meeting, although fraught with bad optics and more, was ensure that Saudi Arabia increased its oil production and, in the process, helped reduces galloping gas prices in America. There are expectations that the prices would begin to come down in the next couple of weeks.