JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Biden said he confronted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directly Friday about the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, telling him in a “straightforward and direct” way that the killing was unacceptable and “making clear what I thought of it at the time and what I think of it now.”
The crown prince, who is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, “basically said that he was not personally responsible for it,” Biden recounted. “I indicated that I thought he was.” U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that MBS, as he is widely known, directed the killing of Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime.
Biden’s comments came at the end of a day when a fist bump between the president and the crown prince — in an image disseminated by the Saudis — quickly took on powerful symbolism ahead of the high-stakes meeting. Human rights activists said the gesture, as Biden and Mohammed met, projected acceptance and even closeness between the two, marking a clear reversal of Biden’s promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for its human rights abuses.
That did not appear to be Biden’s intent, and the president had long made clear his discomfort with the notion of sitting down with the crown prince, though he ultimately concluded he had little choice given Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance. “I don’t regret anything that I said,” Biden asserted when asked about his “pariah” comment. “What happened to Khashoggi was outrageous.”
Still, two top Saudi officials, who briefed reporters after the meeting, described the exchange about Khashoggi as less confrontational than Biden had suggested, even as they confirmed that the president did raise the issue with Mohammed.
“It was candid, it was honest, it was open,” said Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. “And what I found profoundly refreshing is the president said, ‘I just need to be clear and direct with you,’ and the crown prince said, ‘I welcome you being clear, candid and direct, because that’s the way that we move forward.’”
Biden and Mohammed met along with top aides at Al Salam Royal Palace, where they addressed a range of issues, including oil production and human rights. Both ignored questions shouted by reporters, who sought to ask Biden if Saudi Arabia was still a pariah and Mohammed if he would apologize to Khashoggi’s family.
After arriving in Jiddah from Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon, Biden was greeted by a small coterie of Saudi officials as he descended Air Force One onto a light purple carpet. Unlike the elaborate and effusive welcome ceremony that greeted him Wednesday when he arrived in Israel, Biden was on the tarmac at King Abdulaziz International Airport for only one minute before entering the presidential limousine and departing.
Neither the king nor his son, the crown prince, was at the airport to meet Biden. The president immediately headed to the royal palace for a bilateral meeting with the Saudi leaders, and Saudi television showed Biden fist-bumping the crown prince before that session.
The image prompted immediate criticism. “It suggests the crown prince is now accepted,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The only way to transform that photograph into some signal of disapproval is for Biden to speak publicly and in detail about ongoing concerns with the crown prince’s abysmal human rights record.”
Some members of the president’s party also took issue with the gesture. “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,” tweeted Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.). “One fist bump is worth a thousand words.”
The crown prince has in recent years tried to transform his country from a conservative theocracy to a more complete player on the world stage, attracting tourists with a diversified economy less dependent on oil.
Biden’s visit appeared to bolster the notion that Saudi Arabia is a full member of the family of nations. Beyond the fist bump, photos quickly emerged of a bilateral U.S.-Saudi meeting not unlike dozens Biden has conducted in the last 18 months. Immediately following the meeting, Saudi leaders conducted interviews with media outlets from around the world, trumpeting the close contact with the U.S. president.
The Saudi government also shared multiple photos and videos of Biden’s visit, including one in which a smiling Biden greeted a line of Saudi officials with fist bumps. The video then showed the crown prince exchanging fist bumps with grinning U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser.
But there were other bumps along the way. Saudi officials initially excluded two Washington Post reporters from a planned media briefing that the government was holding Friday, without providing an explanation.
Pressed on why The Post was the only major U.S. news outlet not invited to the session, Nicolla Hewitt, a media consultant for the Saudi government, said, “I can’t engage with The Post on that,” adding, “Don’t kill me, I’m just the messenger.”
A few hours later, after Post reporters raised the matter with White House officials, Hewitt changed course, writing in an email, “Would love to be able to invite you to the roundtable tonight.”
For months, Biden made clear his discomfort with sitting face-to-face with the crown prince, and he has repeatedly downplayed his trip to Saudi Arabia. He said in June, for example, “I’m not going to meet with MBS.” He also described the visit to Jiddah as being not about Saudi Arabia but rather about the Middle East more broadly, saying the meeting just happened to be located in the kingdom.
But for much of the day, the fist bump dominated the conversation among many who were watching the events. The nature of Biden’s greeting with Mohammed was closely watched after the White House told reporters that the president’s physical contact with others would be limited on the trip because of surging cases of covid-19 in recent weeks.
But Biden had not previously changed his behavior during that stretch, and the new policy immediately raised questions about whether the president was looking for a way to avoid the bad optics of a handshake with Mohammed. In any case, Biden quickly dispensed of any effort to keep his distance during the Middle East trip, shaking hands with top Israeli officials upon landing there Wednesday and hugging Holocaust survivors during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
Biden officials then tried to shift the focus, as a senior administration official told reporters, “We’re focused on the meetings, not the greetings.”
Pressure on Biden to engage with the Saudis mounted in recent months, despite his vow to isolate the country. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused the price of gas to skyrocket, a problem that has damaged Biden’s approval ratings and threatens to intensify the head winds his party faces during midterm elections.
As a major oil producer, Saudi Arabia has the power to increase the world’s fuel supply, but it’s not clear that it intends to do so or whether that itself would notably affect prices at the pump, which have gone down in recent days.
“I’m doing all I can to increase the supply,” Biden said after his meeting. “The Saudis share that urgency, and based on our discussions today, I expect we’ll see further steps in the coming weeks.”
The administration also views the Saudis as integral to countering the economic and political influence of Russia and China in the Middle East. At a news conference Tuesday, Biden defended his decision to meet with the crown prince and the Saudis, saying they are central to any effort to stabilize a volatile region.
“The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia is to promote U.S. interests in a way that I think we have an opportunity to reassert our influence in the Middle East,” Biden said, adding that not engaging with the Saudis threatens to create “a vacuum that is filled by both Russia and China.”
Khashoggi’s killing was widely condemned, including by Biden on the campaign trail, where he publicly vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” He has expressed deep reservations to aides about meeting with the crown prince and said publicly that the country’s government has “very little social redeeming value.”
Hatice Cengiz, who was Khashoggi’s fiancee, criticized Biden’s visit Friday, writing on Twitter an imagined account of “What Jamal Khashoggi would tweet today.” It said, “Hey @POTUS, Is this the accountability you promised for my murder? The blood of MBS’s next victim is on your hands,” with the photo of Biden and Mohammed fist-bumping.
Hanan Elatr, who was married to Khashoggi, thanked Biden in a statement for raising the journalist’s murder.
“He raised it first and foremost and I for that I am grateful,” she said. “This is only the beginning of accountability for my husband’s murder. I along with my legal team intend to hold all parties accountable for my husband’s murder through the American justice system.”
Biden’s visit came just weeks after the crown prince traveled to Turkey, where he was greeted with state honors by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a self-proclaimed friend of Khashoggi and once the loudest global voice demanding that Saudi leaders account for the journalist’s murder.
But Erdogan, like Biden, realized that the cost of freezing out the crown prince was too steep, analysts said, during an economic crisis in Turkey made worse by Saudi Arabia’s boycott of Turkish goods. At the presidential palace in Ankara, the Turkish capital, Erdogan received the crown prince, his onetime nemesis, with kisses on both cheeks.
In Jiddah, the United States and Saudi Arabia announced new cooperation on a range of issues following the meeting. The United States will remove peacekeepers from Tiran Island, where they have been stationed as part of the Multinational Force and Observers since shortly after the 1978 Camp David Accords.
The two nations also agreed to share information about cybersecurity threats, and Saudi Arabia signed onto a framework for the peaceful exploration of space. The countries also signed a new framework for cooperation on 5G and 6G technology and another one for more collaboration on clean-energy projects.
Before Biden’s meeting even began, the president made history with his direct flight to Saudi Arabia from Israel, becoming the first president to fly that route. President Donald Trump had flown to Israel from Saudi Arabia.
Part of Biden’s trip centers on building ties between Israel and the broader region, and Saudi Arabia announced Friday that it will open its airspace to Israeli flights.
“That is a big deal,” Biden said. “This is the first tangible step toward a broader normalization.”
Kareem Fahim contributed from Istanbul to this report.