When Donald Trump touched down in Saudi Arabia in 2017, King Salman was waiting on the tarmac.
It was the president’s first overseas trip and the capital Riyadh had been transformed into a celebration of American culture, with flags, projections and music.
Joe Biden‘s arrival could not have been more different. Awaiting him as he walked down the steps of Air Force One was the governor of Mecca.
Later, the president greeted the country’s de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) with a fist bump. This COVID precaution helpfully avoided a handshake photo-op, something White House aides are said to have dreaded.
Naturally the Saudis have adapted their welcome and tailored their diplomatic choreography to a more traditional politician. But the contrast is also evidence of strained relations between the two nations as Mr Biden attempts a tricky pivot from distrusting the kingdom to having to rely on it.
During the 2020 election campaign, candidate Biden said he would make the country a “pariah” due to its human rights abuses. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018 is perhaps the most high-profile example.
Now however, the president realises he needs Saudi Arabia: to help counter the threat of China, increase oil production, and improve relations with Israel. Today it made for an awkward meeting.
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- Joe Biden
- Saudi Arabia
Analysis: Biden visits Middle East for first time as president but the timing is hardly ideal
“Will you apologise to [Jamal Khashoggi’s] family?” shouted an American journalist as the two leaders sat down at the start of talks. The crown prince seemed to slightly smirk as a Saudi aide grabbed the arm of the reporter.
There is no independent media in Saudi Arabia. Local journalists live under heavy surveillance and some have been imprisoned.
Earlier, President Biden had met with the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank. The US has been trying to mend relations with the Palestinians since Donald Trump’s administration cut aid and pushed relations to a nadir.
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The former president had thrown his full support behind then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline agenda, giving the go-ahead for Jewish settlement expansion and recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
And in Palestine on Friday, Mr Biden’s efforts fell on many deaf ears. While they heard his promises, many didn’t fully buy them.
The diplomatic history of the US is full of necessary – if unconventional – bonds between leaders.
Mr Biden may be finding his trip to Saudi Arabia a tense encounter, but more than any president, he knows the importance of the long game.