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What does a fist bump mean?

A bad showing for presidential leadership in Saudi Arabia


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) greets President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival at Al-Salam palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. Associated Press/Photo by Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace

What does a fist bump mean?
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President Joe Biden’s four-day trip to the Middle East has concluded, but the controversy about the visit rages on. After a stop in Israel, Biden landed in Saudi Arabia—a visit that brought significant attention in media outlets due to the tensions between Washington and Riyadh. Those tensions can be traced, not only to high oil prices but also to the U.S. government’s open accusation against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of sanctioning the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

When Biden and MBS met, they exchanged a fist bump, which became the focus of media attention, viewing the gesture as overly friendly if not also awkwardly gauche. Some claimed this as a sign of concession to a despot, underlining yet another weakness of Biden, who is already in a weak position (even in his own party). He flew to Saudi Arabia, hoping to make a deal on oil production to reduce gas prices and curb 40-year-high inflation rates. But he left the meeting with MBS empty-handed.

What caught my attention was not the fist bump but the eye contact between the two as they revealed the disposition of each leader in coming to this meeting.

MBS’s look was cold. While Biden was officially greeted, it does not take a genius to deduce the welcome was not huge. MBS was not willing to allow Biden a successful visit or a good deal. His posture showed strength, determination, and decisiveness. Seeing MBS’s look at Biden, I knew this visit would clearly end up being a failure for the Biden administration. And it was.

Unlike MBS, Biden appeared indecisive and that was a clear indicator throughout the visit. He did not seem to be certain which way to go. Should he seek to please his liberal base by openly criticizing MBS yet lose a crucial deal? Or should he go quiet and possibly receive a deal to help with gas prices at home? After all, while running for president he declared he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in the public square over the murder of Khashoggi. Right now he needs help from the Saudis as gas prices cause political unrest here.

The visit is likely to go down as a net failure for the Biden administration. Given the furor over the murder of Khashoggi, Biden promised to confront MBS about America’s outrage. Did he?

The United States’ standing in the world is undermined by weak leadership, colored by indecisiveness and reluctance, and driven mainly by attempts to please a political base at home.

In an attempt to embellish the image of the Biden administration, liberal media outlets rushed to assist Biden by claiming he did criticize MBS over the murder of Khashoggi. But the picture remains unclear and the competing news reports demonstrate Biden was less open and less decisive than one would hope.

According to the White House, Biden indicated he was “straightforward and direct” with Saudi leaders about Khashoggi’s murder, but it appears there was no specific criticism of any sort. A criticism of that level cannot go unnoticed. This is why a Saudi foreign minister openly disputed any claim that Biden confronted MBS over the murder of Khashoggi.

Whether he did or not, the ambiguous stance and the confusing reporting suggest that Biden was unclear or ambiguous, which reflects his general indecisiveness and uncertainty on many issues—another contributor to the failure of the visit.

As if it is not embarrassing enough, MBS had a lesson to give to Biden.

After denying involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, MBS pointed to the reported inhumane abuse of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. military personnel. The message was clear: Don’t be quick to point a finger at us. In his clear rejection of Biden’s questioning of Saudi affairs, MBS added, “Countries have different values and those values should be respected.”

He also referred to the assassination of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, referring to the lack of response on the part of the U.S. government, especially as the U.S. “could not reach a definitive conclusion” concerning who killed her. The message to Biden was again clear: You seem to care more about the Saudi Khashoggi than the American Abu Akleh who was unjustly murdered.

The United States and our national reputation are at stake every time a president represents us before other world leaders. There is nothing good about a visit of a U.S. president to Saudi Arabia that fails. The United States’ standing in the world is undermined by weak leadership, colored by indecisiveness and reluctance, and driven mainly by attempts to please a political base at home. It is not a sign of American strength that the conversation about the president’s trip came down to the meaning of a fist bump.


A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.


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