The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Was Biden’s Middle East trip worth it?

7 min

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The optics were not ideal, to put it mildly. Here was the president of the United States — the same politician who had vowed to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” — striding up to a smirking Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the same willful royal whose alleged thuggery had spurred President Biden to make that vow — and extending his hand in a fist. The crown prince reciprocated with his own knuckles.

It was the fist bump seen around the world. Biden was received Friday evening in the Saudi city of Jiddah, as part of a busy four-day itinerary that had taken him from stops in Israel and the West Bank to a regional summit of Arab states hosted by the Saudis. A lot was on the agenda as the Biden administration seeks to subtly reassert U.S. leadership in the Middle East and move along Israel’s rapprochement with an emerging crop of Arab partners.

But the encounter with the crown prince, who U.S. intelligence officials believe responsible for the plot that led to the killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, loomed above it all. The image was swiftly disseminated by the kingdom’s state media and prompted a global outcry.

Rights activists and critics of Saudi autocracy, among others, saw a betrayal of values and a reminder of the impunity afforded to the crown prince. Khashoggi’s fiancee described the sight of Biden greeting the crown prince, known by his initials MBS, as “heartbreaking.” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said the meeting “suggests the crown prince is now accepted.”

“The fist bump between President Biden and Mohammed bin Salman was worse than a handshake — it was shameful,” Washington Post Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan said in a statement. “It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking.”

Biden walks in Trump’s footsteps in the Middle East

There were alternate readings, too, as analysts spied a frostiness between the two leaders. “The fist bump is yet another sign that this is not the president’s comfort zone, and this is not a warm bilateral relationship,” Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Post’s Dan Zak. “And it may not become a warm bilateral relationship under the president. But it will be a relationship.”

There were conflicting accounts of how tough Biden was during hours of closed meetings, with the Saudis suggesting that Biden did not directly confront MBS over Khashoggi’s death, while the U.S. president insisted that he did. As Biden extended a formal invitation to the White House to UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed, news emerged that Khashoggi’s ex-lawyer, U.S. citizen Asim Ghafoor, had been arrested and in the United Arab Emirates and sentenced to three years in prison for money laundering and tax evasion charges that critics say were trumped up.

The reality of the situation, no matter the White House’s insistence on its commitment to human rights, is that the perceived urgency of the geopolitical moment outweighed whatever lingering outrage was felt in Washington over the misconduct of Arab monarchs. “Challenges you face today only make it a heck of a lot more important we spend time together,” Biden argued as his visit concluded Saturday.

“The United States is clear-eyed about the challenges in the Middle East and about where we have the greatest capacity to help drive positive outcomes,” he said during his final remarks to a coalition of leaders from the Persian Gulf countries and some neighbors. “We will not walk away and leave the vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.”

Biden vows expanded U.S. role in Mideast as controversial trip ends

But Biden headed home with few substantive deliverables to show. In the wake of the chaotic few months in energy markets, Biden did not come away with any guarantees from the Saudis and Emiratis to boost the global oil supply. This wasn’t particularly surprising. Experts had warned before Biden’s trip began that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had limited extra capacity to inject into the markets.

Biden touted $1 billion in U.S. funding to help address hunger in parts of the Middle East and North Africa and proffered a smaller amount of economic assistance to Palestinians. But the latter was not welcomed by many Palestinians, who have seen their aspirations for statehood wither on the vine and successive U.S. administrations support a status quo that only deepens Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

“It’s the same thing as [former president Donald] Trump: it’s this focus on economic prosperity without addressing the real problems,” Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian writer and activist, told the Financial Times. “It’s not money that we need. It’s the removal of checkpoints, it’s the removal of Israeli pressures not just on hospitals but on cultural institutions.”

“The two-state solution died a long time ago, and now so has the Palestinians’ strategic choice of relying on the West in their struggle for their national rights,” wrote Gideon Levy in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

For Biden, the real thrust of the visit was more tectonic. U.S. officials hope to reposition themselves in the region’s shifting geopolitical landscape, as Israel and a clutch of Arab monarchies tighten cooperation in the face of mutual antagonist Iran. Tough rhetoric over the regime in Tehran — not Palestinian rights in Israel or civil rights for dissidents in Arab autocracies — dominated proceedings. New diplomatic initiatives may also redefine the region: Earlier last week, Biden participated in a virtual meeting of the “I2U2” bloc, which brings together Israel, India, the UAE and the United States.

The Saudi decision to open its airspace to Israeli flights was hailed by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid as “the first official step in normalization with Saudi Arabia.” Saudi officials, though, were far less enthusiastic in public about that outcome, emphasizing that the passage of these flights did not mean further steps were in motion. Normalization with Israel, they said, was still contingent on the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.

“Anyone expecting a checklist of achievements was looking at the wrong visit,” Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told me. “Biden didn’t go with a checklist but a long-term agenda.”

Discussions about the price of oil, differences over human rights, negotiations for maintaining the cease-fire in Yemen — these are matters usually handled quietly with one’s interlocutors. “The trip went as well as it was ever likely to, and that, in a very subtle way, it achieved a lot by clarifying Washington’s seriousness about leading a loose but potent security coalition in the region,” Ibish added.

Other analysts are less convinced. “The trip was worth it to his hosts in Israel and Saudi Arabia who each got what they wanted: Carte blanche to the continuation of an apartheid system in Israel and an official end to the Saudi crown prince’s pariah status,” Randa Slim, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told me. “It is unclear what the U.S. got from this trip.”