Question over handshake symbolizes Biden's awkward approach to Saudi Arabia

Officials won't say if Biden will shake hands with the Saudi crown prince.

July 14, 2022, 11:54 AM

It's the handshake that the White House doesn't want to talk about.

For weeks, the question of whether President Joe Biden will shake Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's hand when he visits Saudi Arabia this week has hounded officials reluctant for the president to be seen warming up to the man the U.S. believes is responsible for a journalist's murder.

They have jumped linguistic hurdles to avoid saying whether the two leaders would clasp hands, and at first took pains to not even utter Prince Mohammed's name – saying instead Biden would meet with "King Salman and his leadership team."

President Joe Biden and Israel's caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid shake hands before the start of a joint press conference in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2022.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

"In terms of the precise modalities, I'll leave that to the folks who are actually organizing the trip," the president's top national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said when asked Monday if Biden would be photographed shaking hands or meeting with the crown prince.

"I'm sure that he'll greet the leaders in Saudi Arabia as appropriate," White House spokesman John Kirby said in a Wednesday interview with CNN.

And White House officials have even suggested Biden would avoid physical contact on his Middle East trip because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In this Oct. 23, 2018, file photo, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

"We're going to try to minimize contact as much as possible," White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said Wednesday.

But that plan fell apart almost immediately when Biden landed shortly after in Tel Aviv and both embraced and shook hands with officials there.

The president himself did not respond to ABC News when asked Tuesday whether he'd shake the crown prince's hand.

Dodging answering the question directly has become symbolic of the White House's apprehensive approach to Biden's entire trip to Saudi Arabia, which he had said he's taking to further American economic and security interests.

As a presidential candidate, Biden had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" state over the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist who was based in the United States.

US President Joe Biden shares t moment with Israeli former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, in Lod, Israel, July 13, 2022.
Abir Sultan/EPA-EFE via Shutterstock

U.S. intelligence agencies later assessed that Prince Mohammed, who is also known as "MBS" and who effectively runs the Gulf nation, had approved the operation that left Khashoggi dead.

Biden plans to meet with 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 slew of geopolitical concerns at play – the president decided to travel to oil-rich Saudi Arabia and meet with its leaders.

"He's not all that concerned about the modalities of the actual greeting," Kirby told CNN Wednesday. "That's not the point. The point are the issues."

President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli former prime minister and Leader of the Opposition Benjamin Netanyahu upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel, July 13, 2022.

Biden on Thursday would not say whether he would bring up Khashoggi's murder when he meets with Saudi leaders the next day.

"I always bring up human rights," Biden said, when asked by a reporter in Jerusalem what he would say about Khashoggi's killing to Prince Mohammed.

"But my position on Khashoggi has been so clear," he continued. "If anyone doesn't understand it, in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven't been around for a while."