President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel had all the joy and good feelings of a family simcha — including visits with all of the feuding relatives who make up the intricate web of Israel’s complex political tapestry. But the second leg of his trip, to Saudi Arabia, had neither joy nor good feelings. Instead, Biden’s closely watched visit to the kingdom was more akin to an obligatory, solemn tribute visit to a mafia boss who demands fealty, respect and deference, but provides nothing in return.
We are not accustomed to seeing our nation’s president put in that position, especially on otherwise friendly foreign soil. And it makes us wonder what the Biden team was thinking in planning for the Saudi visit and what they think they accomplished while there.
Before his visit to Riyadh, Biden pledged to confront Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the 36-year-old de-facto leader of Saudi Arabia, colloquially known as MBS — for ordering the brutal killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And he promised to make Saudi Arabia “pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” over that murder and the kingdom’s dismal human rights record. As to the former, Biden claims he challenged MBS over the Khashoggi murder, and the Saudis say that he didn’t. And as to the latter, there is little evidence of any serious efforts to address human rights concerns, and absolutely no evidence of pariah treatment. Indeed, the opposite appears to be the case.
Biden wants the Saudis to raise their oil output so increased supply will drive down prices — including, hopefully, the price at American gas pumps as midterm elections approach. And Biden has apparently concluded that the United States cannot walk away from the Middle East entirely, because the vacuum left by America will be filled by Iran, Russia and China. So, he sought to reassure Arab countries that they’re doing the right thing by remaining with Team America. As such, although MBS may be a murderous thug, we don’t want him to be someone else’s murderous thug. And knowing that a handshake, respectful bow or other embrace of the Saudi leader would convey either too much respect or a personal closeness, Biden went for the fist bump — a move that generated even more criticism for its perceived friendly gesture between two sympatico bros. Perhaps he should have bumped elbows, instead.
Biden left the kingdom with an unclear commitment on oil production. On human rights and the Khashoggi murder, he got nothing. Yet, despite the disappointments, Biden came away from the meetings as the nice guy we all know him to be. There were no grand gestures. Nor was there finger pointing or demands. Instead, he pursued workmanlike efforts to solidify common international concerns — particularly focused upon Iran, but also relating to Russia.
We continue to wonder why Biden made the trip. At the end of Biden’s Saudi adventure, there was only one winner: Mohammed bin Salman.