Biden and MbS: Fist-bumps speak louder than words
In the aftermath of US president Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East, a cascade of commentary has been written about his decision to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the Saudi kingdom.
Many have repudiated the move as a betrayal of Biden’s presidential promise to “centre” human rights in his foreign policy. Citing MBS’ role in the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – who was brutality dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – pundits have taken to the press and social media to rebuke Biden for reneging on his campaign pledge to treat Riyadh as a “pariah” for its actions.
Yet when Biden pledged to shun Saudi back in 2019, he had been trying to cement his candidacy as the Democratic nominee against a number of other contenders, including progressive challengers Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Both seemed for some time to captivate audiences with their emphasis on social democratic values and rejection of realpolitik.
''Biden’s incoherent fist-bump diplomacy, it seemed, embarked on a dual attempt to appear tough on MBS in order to circumvent criticism from national audiences while simultaneously hoping to persuade Saudi to take a more cooperative stance regarding a number of foreign policy issues, key among them, oil. In other words, the administration wanted to have its cake and eat it too.''
President Biden, on the other hand, is concerned with boosting his low domestic approval ratings with a much-needed foreign policy achievement that his administration can market to voters ahead of November’s midterm elections.
While the two Bidens seem at odds with one another, both have been primarily motivated by electoral considerations.
Today, the Biden administration correctly reasons that the American public is more concerned with containing inflationary pressure than with sustaining a diplomatic row with an authoritarian petrostate located halfway across the world. For Biden, bringing home a concrete Saudi commitment towards boosting oil production, which would in turn alleviate rising consumer costs associated with the current energy crisis, takes precedence over upholding unrealistic election promises imbued with rhetorical homages to the lexicon of human rights and accountability.
Biden’s incoherent fist-bump diplomacy, it seemed, embarked on a dual attempt to appear tough on MBS in order to circumvent criticism from national audiences while simultaneously hoping to persuade Saudi to take a more cooperative stance regarding a number of foreign policy issues, key among them, oil. In other words, the administration wanted to have its cake and eat it too.
The irony, however, is that Biden, at least in the interim, may have failed on both fronts.
In the public eye, he has opened up his presidency to accusations of hypocrisy and political backtracking. Having previously vowed to take a tough stance on Saudi and MBS in particular, Biden’s highly publicised fist-bump debacle triggered backlash from several of his own Democratic colleagues. In stark contrast to their thus far favourable coverage of his presidency, mainstream media outlets, from CNN to the Washington Post, also rebuked him for his meeting with MBS, with the CEO of the latter referring to it as “shameful.”
Absent any political breakthroughs with the administration, these critiques are likely to remain in the American psyche until the current news cycle completely runs its course.
Moreover, the administration’s inability to extract tangible concessions from MBS regarding oil output sends a message to the president’s supporters that he sacrificed his alleged values in exchange for nothing.
Saudi Arabia is already pumping nearly at capacity, meaning Biden’s diplomatic overtures may prove an exercise in futility. Statements by Saudi officials that openly contradict Biden’s claims regarding their joint discussions on oil, the Khashoggi affair, and the kingdom’s steps towards normalisation with Israel all serve to foster a climate of distrust that dissolves the credibility of the president in the eyes of important constituencies.
This matters for a president who has carefully crafted a moral persona for himself meant to wipe clean his contentious track record as a career politician, which, among other things, includes support for mass incarceration of Americans and the 2003 Iraq War, in addition to his history advocating for segregationists in the school system.
President Biden fist pumping the Saudi crown prince MbS, the same hands that have blood from killing Khashoggi and people of Yemen and activists inside!pic.twitter.com/ZLrYrDPsj6— د. عبدالله العودة (@aalodah) July 15, 2022
More importantly, MBS may be waiting out the Biden presidency, hoping for a re-election of a Republican candidate in 2024, such as former president Donald Trump, who will return to the traditional equation underlining U.S.-Saudi relations without the disingenuous squabbling about human rights and democracy. Such lectures, even when delivered in passing, place Saudi royals in an uncomfortable position vis-à-vis their own people.
Notably, it is MBS, not Biden, who has benefited from the exchange. While Biden was inundated with criticism internally, MBS was able to exploit the optics of the visit to gain legitimacy, projecting himself as a strong political figure willing to stand up to US dictates and chart Saudi on an independent path, free of Western condescension. Biden’s reversal constitutes a public relations victory for the crown prince.
Reports from Saudi-funded media outlets on the conversation that transpired between Biden and the crown prince, in contrast to the White House’s version of events, claim that MBS pushed back at the American president by pointing to the US’ own global shortcomings. This includes its legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently, its failure to hold Israel accountable over its military’s killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
And MBS’ insincere whataboutism aside, his broader point on US foreign policy is not without merit. Moreover, it speaks to a perception regarding America shared by millions across the Middle East.
Washington does not endear itself to the people of the region by espousing moral principles while serially contradicting them.
Some fist-bumps speak louder than words.
Nizar Mohamad is an independent analyst, writer, and editor based in Toronto, Canada who focuses on Middle Eastern politics and security.
Follow him on Twitter: @NizarMohamad1
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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of their employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.