Biden's fist bump fiasco muddles bid to avoid handshake with Saudi prince
Bloomberg July 13, 2022
A glowing orb, a back-slapping embrace, a formal handshake, or a cool, COVID-appropriate fist bump? For all the talk of oil, the most pressing decision for President Joe Biden this week could come down to choosing the appropriate greeting when he meets the Saudi leader he vowed to snub.
It's a decision that just got more complicated after Biden was caught in an extended handshake with Israel's former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and then couldn't seem to stop shaking hands of other Israeli officials during a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust.
Biden wasn't supposed to shake hands with any foreign leader during his first Middle East trip. It's a precaution aides said was meant to protect him from COVID-19 - but one that would conveniently help avoid a handshake with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the second leg of his tour.
It started off well, with Biden cautiously - if awkwardly - fist-bumping the Israel premier and several other officials after stepping off Air Force One in Tel Aviv. Then, after speeches, came the quick handshake with recently-resigned premier Naftali Bennett followed by the fulsome overture from Netanyahu.
That'll make it awkward to fist bump Prince Mohammed, widely known as MBS, without causing potential offense. The world will be watching the body language almost as closely as the statements and whatever photo emerges could haunt Biden the rest of his presidency.
Biden entered office vowing to turn Saudi Arabia into a "pariah" over the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi.
The decision was made to warm relations after Russia's invasion of Ukraine sent gasoline prices soaring, putting domestic pressure on Biden. But the U.S. administration has been at pains to reset the relationship without creating a photo op that could haunt him in an election year.
When former President Donald Trump made his inaugural visit to the Middle East, he was pictured standing with the Saudi king and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi around a glowing orb at the opening of a terrorism conference.
The unfortunate snap spawned a deluge of memes since immortalized on social media.
With the Saudi leg of the trip set to last no more than a day, opportunities for PR slip-ups of that magnitude could be limited.
The president is scheduled to meet with King Salman, Prince Mohammed and other members of the Saudi leadership on Friday in Jeddah after departing Israel. The White House has avoided saying whether the president will have any one-on-one interactions with MBS.
So far, there's no joint news conference planned, potentially dodging any photos that could make the two leaders appear too friendly, like this image of Prince Mohammed sharing a joke with Russian Vladimir Putin weeks after the Khashoggi killing hit global headlines.
Biden, who has called himself a "tactile politician," has done little to avoid handshakes even before his four-day trip.
He was seen embracing lawmakers during a congressional picnic on the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday shortly before departing for Israel. He also spent more than an hour working a rope line during a trip to Cleveland last week, putting his arms around and taking photos with supporters.
It's hard to say how he might respond if confronted with Prince Mohammed's outstretched hand.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre would not answer directly when asked if the new guidelines around handshakes were a deliberate effort to avoid a photograph of Biden shaking hands with Prince Mohammed.
"We are saying that we're going to try to minimize contact as much as possible. But also there are precautions that we are taking because this is up to his doctor," she told reporters.