JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Biden fist bumped with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before securing a promise to help lower gas prices.
The president met with the ruler he once pledged to shun for human rights violations as he tried to reset an important diplomatic relationship, bolster Mideast security and increase the global flow of oil.
It was the first encounter for the two leaders, and their chummy gesture was swiftly criticized. But Biden insisted that he did not shy away from pressing the crown prince on the kingdom’s abuses, particularly the 2018 murder of the U.S.-based writer Jamal Khashoggi, which U.S. intelligence believes was approved by the heir to the throne.
“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 said after the meeting. “I’ll always stand up for our values.”
Biden said Prince Mohammed claimed that he was “not personally responsible” for the death of Khashoggi, who wrote for The Washington Post. “I indicated I thought he was,” the president said he replied.
Though he brushed off any focus on the fist bump, it was described as “shameful” by Fred Ryan, the Post’s publisher.
“It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking,” Ryan said, referring to the crown prince by his initials.
Biden had long refused to speak to Prince Mohammed. But concerns about human rights have been somewhat eclipsed by other challenges, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and rising gas prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia wants to strengthen its security relationship with the United States and secure investments to transform its economy into one less reliant on pumping oil.
For now, it appears the two leaders are taking incremental steps together. Biden announced that U.S. peacekeepers would leave the Red Sea island of Tiran by the end of the year, paving the way for Saudi Arabia to develop tourist attractions there.
Because of a complex diplomatic arrangement governing control of the strategically located island, America’s departure required Israel’s assent, and the deal was the latest reflection of warmer relations between the Israelis and Saudis.
The agreement followed an earlier announcement that the Saudis were ending strict limits on Israeli commercial flights over their territory.
9/11 Families United had urged Biden to also bring up the kingdom’s links to the terror attacks more than two decades ago — but it’s not clear if he did.
The group’s National Chair Terry Strada, whose husband Tom died in the World Trade Center’s North Tower, said earlier this week the Saudis need to be held accountable.
“The evidence is overwhelming that the Kingdom was involved. Not only their agents that they sent over here, but again, with all of their institutions and their citizens that were supporting al Qaeda. This needs to be addressed first. Our national security depends on a true account of September 11th,” she said, adding the group is suing the kingdom in court.