Joe Biden arrived in the Middle East with a very simple diplomatic instruction from his aides: don’t shake people’s hands.
His four-day tour to Israel and the West Bank includes a sensitive second-leg visit to Saudi Arabia and a meeting with crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who Biden had promised to make a pariah before taking office.
Prior to the trip, it was announced he would avoid shaking people's hands and other forms of physical contact because of rising COVID cases – even though observers said this was a convenient way to avoid being photographed pressing the flesh with MBS.
The Saudis are keen to turn the page on criticism of the kingdom’s dismal human rights record, the brutal war in Yemen and the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Despite clear instructions and being two years into the pandemic, Biden’s handshake saga started with handshakes with recently resigned Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett followed by another round with Benjamin Netanyahu, before he hugged Holocaust survivors.
On Friday, Biden met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, where he only hesitated slightly before gripping Abbas’s hand once after getting out of his car and again for a photo shoot.
Protesters took to the streets in the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem, criticising the US president for his support of Israel and decrying Israeli settlements being built on land owned by Palestinians.
The trip was overshadowed by the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rising oil prices. The US is trying to get the oil-rich Gulf countries to step in, but first, Biden needs to warm the waters with the Saudi officials who enjoyed full support from Donald Trump.
Biden is due to land in Jeddah on Friday evening.
There, he will meet 11 leaders from the Middle East, including Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. He is expected to persuade oil-producing countries to increase their production levels, push Saudis for a permanent cease-fire in Yemen, and strengthen an alliance to counter Iran's influence in the region.
The White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded to reports around the handshakes and said: “We are saying that we’re going to try to minimise contact as much as possible. But also, there are precautions that we are taking because this is up to his doctor.”