Biden Saudi Crown Prince fist bump
Biden's meeting with Saudi crown prince comes under fire
03:22 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Are presidential fist bumps a sign of distance or closeness? The Biden administration may have thought that by avoiding a handshake with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, the President could dampen any criticism for meeting the de facto ruler of a nation he once vowed to shun. (The White House had said the fist bumps were an effort to reduce physical contact on his trip to the Middle East, although Biden broke out the handshakes for former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and clasped hands with a pair of Holocaust survivors earlier in his trip.)

The administration was wrong on that count, but it was right in anticipating the level of attention the greeting would draw. After all, the world was gripped by then-President Donald Trump’s unusually long handshakes with a bewildered Japanese prime minister and a competitive French president. Handshakes – or their stand-ins – can be weighty diplomatic theater.

But Joe Biden’s Saudi trip has been much more than theater. It has been a high stakes gambit filled with urgent, concrete objectives, and Biden had greater aims than simply lowering gas prices for Americans in order to boost his own political standing, as so many suggest.

This meeting was more about Kyiv than Kenosha; more about Tehran than Toledo.

The controversy over meeting MBS had already exploded before Biden landed in Jeddah for a trip that was timed to coincide with a regional summit of nine Arab countries in an effort to strengthen US leadership in the region. But it was the meeting with MBS that produced the most caustic criticism.

The brash 36-year-old’s ruthlessness was never a secret, but the depth of his cruelty shocked even the most jaded realists in 2018 when his agents lured, murdered and dismembered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the regime. US intelligence concluded that MBS had ordered the assassination. He denies it. (Disclosure: Khashoggi was a contributing columnist at the Washington Post, as am I.)

As a presidential candidate aiming to challenge Trump, who had unquestioningly embraced many of the world’s most brutal dictators, including MBS, Biden vowed to treat the Saudis like pariahs.

Initially, Biden kept his word. He would communicate solely with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, according to the White House, denying MBS the recognition as de facto ruler. Biden also declassified the CIA report implicating MBS in Khashoggi’s murder.

But then the world changed. Russia invaded Ukraine, initiating what has become a devastating war of attrition. Russia has been accused of massacring civilians, including countless children; it has also created millions of refugees, destroyed infrastructure and captured Ukrainian territories. Soaring food prices threaten to cause mass starvation. Oil prices, too, skyrocketed, with grave consequences.

Biden mobilized the Western alliance to support Ukraine as more European countries, including Finland and Sweden, asked to join North Atlantic Treaty Organization for fear that Russia would one day target them. Vladimir Putin’s threats went so far as to suggest that countries that once belonged to the USSR – three of which are now NATO members – should still be ruled by Moscow.

Russia’s aggression, in other words, extends far beyond Ukraine. It could not be allowed to be succeed.

Enter Saudi Arabia.

Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been a morally disturbing one. It requires a distasteful weighing of principles against interests.

Since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud in 1945, striking a deal to provide arms and security in exchange for a reliable supply of oil, every US president has maintained relations with their Saudi counterparts, often traveling to the kingdom to establish stronger ties. Barack Obama, incidentally, holds the record, going four times during his presidency.

FDR, remember, met with Joseph Stalin, a mass murdering Soviet leader, during World War II because he thought they could join forces to defeat Hitler, the greatest threat. To defeat the Nazis, Roosevelt reportedly said, he “would hold hands with the devil.”

MBS is not the devil and Putin is not Hitler. The point is that sometimes leaders need to hold their noses and come together with figures they’d much rather shun.

What’s key here is that Saudi Arabia plays a crucial role in bolstering the West’s support for Ukraine. Regionally, the kingdom is an important force in trying to contain the Iranian regime. And, longer term, maintaining ties with MBS is about keeping the global balance of power on the side of the US, rather than China.

When it comes to oil, the US doesn’t need Saudi Arabia to keep its economy afloat. The US has become the world’s top oil producer. But Saudi holds one of the largest reserves, and the ability to increase the supply of oil and gas would lower prices worldwide, which could indirectly determine the outcome of the war in Ukraine.

To defeat Putin, Ukraine needs sustained Western support. If oil prices remain high and the global economy plunges into recession, popular approval for helping Ukraine may not last. Europeans struggling to pay heating bills this winter may start to question the wisdom of squeezing Russia’s vast oil and gas exports, and their discontent could cause their leaders to fold.

If Biden had gone to Saudi Arabia on bended knee in order to buoy his approval ratings and scrape a few cents off prices at the pump in the US, the trip would have been a less forgivable sacrifice of principles. But this was a larger geopolitical gambit against an aggressive Russian dictator who is accused of ordering the slaughter of civilians.

It doesn’t make the killing of Khashoggi any less appalling, the execution and imprisonment of Saudi critics on what many consider trumped-up charges any less deplorable, or the “guardianship” system of Saudi women any less infuriating.

But engaging with Saudi Arabia allows the US to bolster its influence on major global conflicts – with the potential to influence the Saudis, too. For one, the US is building a regional bloc, including Israel and several Arab countries, to counter Tehran, which may soon possess nuclear weapons.

And the reality is that MBS is likely to rule the kingdom for decades and the crown prince knows there are alternatives to the US. As MBS noted in a March interview with the Atlantic, if the US pulls away, “I believe other people in the East are going to be super happy.” The crown prince has been bolstering relations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in recent years, and reportedly invited him to the kingdom in March, though that visit has not yet occurred.

The West understands the risk. “We are not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill,” Biden declared on Friday.

China won’t publicly chastise the Saudis for murdering a journalist, as Biden did. They won’t discuss “human rights and the need for political reform,” as Biden, on Saudi soil, told the entire world he had done.

Will the criticism work? Will the trip pay off? We still don’t know.

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    We do know that Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia was a victory for MBS, as it granted him the recognition he craves. That’s why the palace rushed to broadcast the pictures of Biden fist bumping the prince – never mind that Biden likely meant it as a sign of chilliness. If the Saudis raise oil and natural gas output, helping ease the price of fuel as the West prepares for winter without Russian gas supplies; if they loosen more restrictions on women; if they allow now-restricted American citizens to leave the country, then we will know it was worth it.

    It was a gamble. Let’s hope it pays off.