It’s the handshake the White House doesn’t want to talk about.
For weeks, the question of whether President Joe Biden will shake hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during his visit to Saudi Arabia this week has plagued officials reluctant that the president is seen warming up to the a man the United States believes responsible for the murder of a journalist. .
They skipped language hurdles to avoid saying whether the two leaders were shaking hands, and at first took pains not to even utter Prince Mohammed’s name – saying instead that Biden would meet “King Salman and its management team.
“As for the specifics, I’ll leave that to the people who are actually arranging the trip,” the president’s top national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said when asked Monday if Biden would be photographed trying to get away. shake hands or meet the crown. prince.
“I’m sure he will salute the leaders of Saudi Arabia as appropriate,” White House spokesman John Kirby said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday.
And White House officials even suggested that Biden would avoid physical contact while traveling in the Middle East due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We will try to minimize contact as much as possible,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday.
But that plan crumbled almost immediately when Biden landed in Tel Aviv soon after and both kissed and shook hands with officials there.
The president himself did not respond to ABC News when asked on Tuesday if he was shaking hands with the crown prince.
Dodging the direct answer to the question has become symbolic of the White House’s apprehensive approach to Biden’s entire trip to Saudi Arabia, which he said he was taking to further the interests American economy and security.
As a presidential candidate, Biden had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state following the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist based in the United States.
US intelligence agencies later believed that Prince Mohammed, also known as “MBS” and who effectively rules the Gulf nation, approved the operation which left Khashoggi dead.
Biden plans to meet Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman, on Friday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before attending a regional summit the next day.
But with rising inflation and high gas prices weighing on Americans — and a host of geopolitical concerns at play — the president decided to travel to oil-rich Saudi Arabia and meet with its leaders. .
“He’s not at all concerned about the terms of the actual reception,” Kirby told CNN on Wednesday. “That’s not the problem. The problem is the problems.”
Biden on Thursday did not say whether he would bring up Khashoggi’s killing when he meets with Saudi leaders the following day.
“I always talk about human rights,” Biden said, when asked by a reporter in Jerusalem what he would say about Khashoggi’s killing of Prince Mohammed.
“But my position on Khashoggi has been so clear,” he continued. “If someone doesn’t understand it, in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, it’s because they haven’t been there for a while.”