A crucial meeting to repair one of the world’s most important diplomatic relationships began with a fist bump as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomed US president Joe Biden at a royal palace.
The first encounter, captured by Saudi television, occurred as Mr Biden stepped out of his presidential limousine in Jeddah for a visit that is intended to reset their countries’ long-standing partnership.
There was little evidence of any warmth between the leaders, and none of the backslapping or smiles that Mr Biden or the crown prince usually display when greeting other leaders.
Until now, Mr Biden had refused to speak to Prince Mohammed, the presumed heir to the throne currently held by his father, King Salman.
Mr Biden has harshly criticized the oil-rich kingdom for its human rights abuses, particularly the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based journalist.
But those concerns have since been eclipsed by other challenges, including rising gas prices and Iranian aggression in the Middle East.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is looking to bolster its security relationship with the United States and is seeking investments to transform its economy into one that is less reliant on pumping oil.
The Saudis held a subdued welcome for Mr Biden at the airport in Jeddah, with none of the ceremony that accompanied his stop this week in Israel.
Mr Biden was greeted by Mecca’s governor, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, Princess Reema bint Bandar, and then walked down a lavender carpet that led to the limousine that whisked him to the palace.
The president was scheduled to sit down with King Salman, the 86-year-old monarch who has suffered from poor health, including two hospital admissions this year. Then he was to participate in a broader meeting including Prince Mohammed, the presumed heir to the throne who is known by his initials MBS.
The future of the region, including the possibility of closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as the ebb and flow of the world’s oil supply could depend on the relationship between the 79-year-old US president and the 36-year-old Saudi royal.
The visit may already be seen as a win for Prince Mohammed.
His rise to power has ushered in a new era for the kingdom as it works to build a homegrown military and weapons industry, wean itself from reliance on oil for revenue and build ties with Israel and other nations as a hedge against the perception that the US is a less reliable security partner.
The meeting with Mr Biden could bestow greater legitimacy on the crown prince’s plans and his path to the throne.
Last year Mr Biden’s administration approved the release of a US intelligence finding that determined the crown prince likely approved Mr Khashoggi’s killing. The release of the report caused a further rupture in US-Saudi relations.
“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear. And I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” Mr Biden has said.
“The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia, though, is much broader. It’s to promote US interests — promote US interests in a way that I think we have an opportunity to reassert what I think we made a mistake of walking away from: our influence in the Middle East.”
Enjoy the convenience of having The Sunday Post delivered as a digital ePaper straight to your smartphone, tablet or computer.
Subscribe for only £5.49 a month and enjoy all the benefits of the printed paper as a digital replica.Subscribe