Joe Biden’s controversial fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was “a win” for the US President, the Saudi foreign minister told CNN in an exclusive interview on Saturday.
The US President has faced a backlash over the informal way he greeted the kingdom’s de facto ruler on his arrival in Jeddah on Friday. Critics have said the fist bump was inappropriate given US suspicions that the Crown Prince was responsible for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and Biden’s subsequent 2020 campaign trail pledge to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah”.
But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan played down the controversy in an interview with CNN’s Nic Robertson hours after the President left Jeddah on Saturday.
“I see the image as a win for President Biden,” bin Farhan said.
“He got out of it a meeting with a key leader in the region. He got out of it, I think, reinvigoration of the strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and the United States.”
Bin Farhan said it was “quite normal” that the leaders had exchanged “pleasantries”, adding, “I don’t know why we’re hung up on a fist bump.”
Biden came to Jeddah seeking solutions to one of his top political problems at home – sky-high gas prices – as diplomacy with Saudi Arabia in the Middle East was seen as one of the few routes he could take to bring down prices that are putting strain on millions of Americans. Bin Farhan said the Crown Prince was open to increasing Saudi Arabia’s oil capacity – within limits.
“The most important point in the Crown Prince’s statement today was that we need to have a balanced approach towards our energy transition because the kingdom, while it’s increasing its capacity to 13 million barrels cannot go beyond that,” he said.
However, critics say Biden’s visit has been overshadowed by lingering unease over human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.
Concerns over the optics of the trip were highlighted on Saturday as it emerged that when Biden had raised the matter of Khashoggi’s killing, the Crown Prince responded by saying the US had “made its own mistakes”. In particular, the Crown Prince referenced the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the May killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abbu Akleh in the occupied West Bank as incidents that reflected poorly on the United States.
For its part, the White House has defended Biden’s use of the fist bump as part of an effort to reduce physical contact amid the rapid spread of a new coronavirus variant, noting that Biden also fist-bumped several Israeli leaders before his arrival in Jeddah.
On returning to the White House Saturday evening, Biden appeared annoyed when asked whether he regretted the greeting. “Why don’t you guys talk about something that matters. I’m happy to answer a question that matters,” he said.
The meeting between Biden and the Crown Prince was among the most closely watched moments of Biden’s landmark visit to the Middle East, with the controversy distracting from some of the other items on the President’s agenda – including discussions of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Before Biden’s arrival, Saudi Arabia had been pressuring the US to provide security guarantees if negotiations with Iran were to fail. The last round of talks between the US and Iran resulted in a standstill.
In a statement following the meeting, the White House said Biden had “affirmed the United States’ commitment to working with Saudi Arabia and other allies and partners in the Middle East to integrate and enhance security cooperation.”
While Saudi Arabia – one of Iran’s biggest regional rivals – backs a tough response to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, other Gulf states are wary about getting caught in the crossfire and favor talks as the way forward. The United Arab Emirates, in particular, has said it is against a regional military alliance targeting Iran specifically.
In his interview with CNN’s Nic Robertson, bin Farhan played down any differences, claiming all six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain – were unified in supporting “negotiations” with Iran.
He said Saudi Arabia wanted to resolve its differences with Iran through diplomacy – but was also working with the US to build capacity to “defend against potential Iranian aggression.”
“The Crown Prince’s discussion with President Biden focused on how to address the Iranian threat. And here, we talked about, first of all, negotiations, but also putting together enough pressure to incentivize the Iranians to come to the negotiating table,” bin Farhan said in response to a question on Israel considering a last resort strike against Iran to stop it from producing nuclear weapons.
“We are having discussions with Iran, as you know, so is the UAE, so are our friends in Qatar, Kuwait, so we all as the GCC collective are talking to the Iranians because we want to resolve our differences through dialogue, we hope that the Iranians will respond in kind,” he added.
However, bin Farhan told Robertson, “Obviously, we have to protect ourselves.”
“We’re working with the US to build our capacity and (that of) others in the region … to defend ourselves against potential Iranian aggression.”
He added: “We heard a commitment from President Biden to a robust defense of the kingdom.”