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Biden fist bumps Saudi crown prince on trip that seeks to reset ties

JEDDAH: US President Joe Biden gave a fist bump to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi state television showed on Friday (Jul 15), during a trip to Saudi Arabia that is being watched for body language and rhetoric as Washington seeks to reset relations.

White House officials had worked hard on the optics of the meeting between Biden and the crown prince, known as MbS, who Biden has criticised for his role in the killing of Washington Post journalist and political opponent Jamal Khashoggi.

In the end, it was a fist bump and wordless exchange in front of the king's royal palace in Jeddah that is likely to be the defining image of the visit by the US president, who once promised to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" state.

The president’s aides suggested on Wednesday before he landed in Israel that Biden would avoid handshakes during his trip due to the rapidly spreading new coronavirus subvariant - but within minutes of his arrival Biden dispensed of the rules and was shaking hands.

He continued shaking hands during the Israel leg of his Middle East tour.

"For some reason, Biden's political team thinks a fist bump is less of a statement of friendship than a handshake and planned to have him fist bump everyone in order to make it less notable that he wasn’t shaking MbS' hand," said Kristen Fontenrose, a fellow of foreign relations at the Atlantic Council and a former Trump administration official.

A package of announcements ranging from removing peacekeepers from a strategic island off the Saudi and Egyptian coasts to cooperation in mobile technology was made, the US said.

In the statement released after Biden held talks with senior Saudi officials including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the United States also welcomed previously announced accelerated oil production increases by OPEC+, a group which includes Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The statement said US and other peacekeepers would leave Tiran island where they have been stationed as part of accords reached in 1978 and which led to a peace deal between Israel and Egypt. Tiran lies between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in a strategic area that leads to the Israeli port of Eilat.

Washington also welcomed a Saudi move to open its air space to civilian aircraft flying to and from Israel, which had previously been barred with rare exceptions, the statement said.

Other announcements also covered an agreement on cooperation on 5G and 6G mobile technology and on cybersecurity.

During the visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden is expected to discuss human rights, one of several issues that strained ties after US intelligence concluded the crown prince directly approved the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The crown prince denies having any role in the killing.

On arrival in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, Biden was greeted by Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca province and not by the crown prince, the kingdom's de facto ruler, or the elderly king.

Typically, the White House releases names ahead of landing of foreign officials who will welcome the president, but this time details only came out after Biden left the airport.

When former US President Donald Trump, who enjoyed close ties with MbS, visited Saudi Arabia in 2017 he was greeted by King Salman, who has made few public appearances recently.

The Mecca governor met France's president when he visited Jeddah late last year.

Biden departed for Israel late on Tuesday after spending part of the late afternoon and early evening shaking multiple hands on the White House South Lawn during a congressional picnic.

Source: Reuters/nh

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