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Biden receives muted reception in Saudi Arabia. This is how previous US presidents were greeted

Middle East Eye takes a look at how US presidents have been welcomed by Saudi Arabian leadership over the last two decades
US President Joe Biden fist bumps Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to Jeddah on 15 July 2022.
US President Joe Biden fist bumps Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to Jeddah, on 15 July 2022 (Reuters)

US President Joe Biden arrived for his first visit as president to Saudi Arabia on Friday evening, as the American leader is seeking a recalibration of Washington's ties with Riyadh, a boost in oil production, and some steps towards further integrating Israel into the region.

But rather than being received at the airport by the kingdom's leadership, such as King Salman or his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, he was received by a party whose highest ranked official was Khalid bin Faisal Al Saud, the governor of Mecca province. Princess Reema bint Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the US, was also there to greet Biden.

He later met the Saudi crown prince and the two greeted each other with a fist bump and no smiles.

The lacklustre reception was a sign that the strain in the US-Saudi relationship under Biden has not gone away, and is a stark contrast to former US President Donald Trump's visit to the kingdom, where he was warmly received by Prince Mohammed.

Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia has been marked by his campaign promise to turn Saudi Arabia into a "pariah", as well as his decision to release an intelligence report inculcating Prince Mohammed in the murder of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

At the same time, Saudi Arabian activists and dissidents have lambasted the trip, saying they feel betrayed by the Biden administration, who promised to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for human rights abuses.

Over the past twenty years, US presidents have been received in Saudi Arabia with a mix of receptions, from lavishing them with gifts and ceremonies to having their arrivals not broadcast on state television.

As Biden is in Saudi Arabia, Middle East Eye looks at how previous American leaders were received by the kingdom.

Trump and the glowing orb

Former President Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia - his first visit abroad as president - was one of the most lavish receptions given to a US leader.

In addition to being received by King Salman himself with a red carpet reception, the Trump family was inundated with gifts from the Saudis.

US President Donald Trump poses for a picture with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz during Trump's visit to Riyadh in 2017.
US President Donald Trump poses for a picture with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi King Salman during Trump's visit to Riyadh in 2017 (AFP)

In his visit, the former president also participated in a Saudi Arabian sword dance and saw a fly-by of Saudi Air Force jets.

Then, during a multilateral meeting with Arab leaders, the visit was remembered by a viral photo of Trump, Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with their hands on a glowing white orb. The leaders held their hands on the orb for two full minutes, sending social media into a frenzy.

Following the visit, the US-Saudi relationship had ups and downs, with the Trump administration halting the refuelling of Saudi aircraft used in the war in Yemen and what Riyadh saw as a muted response to attacks on its oil facilities.

The Trump administration also approved billions of dollars of arms sales to the Saudi kingdom despite opposition from US lawmakers.

Ties at the time were largely seen as warm and many key officials in the former Trump administration, including White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, have kept ties with Saudi leadership.

Cold US-Saudi ties under Obama

President Barack Obama visited Saudi Arabia a total of four times - more than any other US president in the past four decades.

Obama's first trip to Riyadh occurred in 2009, less than five months into his presidency, ahead of a visit to Cairo where he delivered a speech seen as a recalibration of the US's role in the Middle East.

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Riyadh governor Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdelaziz al-Saud as he arrives at King Khalid International Airport in the Saudi capital on 20 April 2016.
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Riyadh governor Prince Faisal bin Bandar as he arrives at King Khalid International Airport, on 20 April 2016 (AFP)

While the visit featured a typical protocol, including the greeting at the airport and playing of the US anthem, later visits were much different as American-Saudi relations grew cold under Obama, due in part to his role in the brokering of the Iran nuclear deal.

In 2016, near the end of Obama's tenure in office, he visited the kingdom again. And rather than being received by King Salman - who took power after the death of King Abdullah - the US president was met by the governor of Riyadh and the arrival was not broadcast on state television.

George W Bush's warm reception, rebuff on oil

The two-term, former US President George W Bush waited until his final year in office to visit Saudi Arabia, then went twice in the span of four months as he pressed Riyadh to pump more oil amid skyrocketing energy prices as a result of the 2008 financial crisis.

On his second visit in May 2008, King Abdullah greeted Bush at the airport with a warm reception and the Saudi monarch gave Bush a kiss on both cheeks - a traditional Arab greeting. And the two leaders walked down a red carpet while a military brass band played the American national anthem.

In a similar situation to the one Biden is in now, Saudi Arabia rejected Bush's calls to pump more oil, saying that there was no supply shortage that required an increase in production.

US President George W Bush dances with a sword with Salman bin Abdulaziz, then the governor of Riyadh, on 15 January 2008
US President George W Bush dances with a sword with Salman bin Abdul Aziz, then the governor of Riyadh, on 15 January 2008 (AFP)

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