By Steve Holland and Jarrett Renshaw
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden gave a fist bump to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Friday, state television showed, during a trip to Saudi Arabia that is being watched for body language and rhetoric as Washington seeks to reset relations.
White House officials had worked hard on the optics of the meeting between Biden and the crown prince, known as MbS, who Biden has criticized for his role in the killing of Washington Post journalist and political opponent Jamal Khashoggi.
In the end, it was a fist bump and wordless exchange in front of the king's royal palace in Jeddah that is likely to be the defining image of the visit by the U.S. president, who once promised to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" state.
The president's aides suggested before he landed in Israel - the first leg of his trip - that Biden would avoid handshakes during his trip due to the rapidly spreading new coronavirus subvariant — but within minutes of his arrival in Israel Biden dispensed with the rules and was shaking hands.
He continued shaking hands during the Israel visit before heading to Saudi Arabia.
"For some reason, Biden's political team thinks a fist bump is less of a statement of friendship than a handshake and planned to have him fist bump everyone in order to make it less notable that he wasn’t shaking MbS' hand," said Kristen Fontenrose, a fellow of foreign relations at the Atlantic Council and a former Trump administration official.
During the Saudi visit, Biden is expected to discuss human rights, one of several issues that strained ties after U.S. intelligence concluded the crown prince directly approved the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The crown prince denies having any role in the killing.
On arrival in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, Biden was greeted by Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca province and not by the crown prince, the kingdom's de facto ruler, or the elderly king.
Typically, the White House releases names before landing of foreign officials who will welcome the president, but this time details only came out after Biden left the airport.
When former U.S. President Donald Trump, who enjoyed close ties with MbS, visited Saudi Arabia in 2017 he was greeted by King Salman, who has made few public appearances recently.
The Mecca governor met France's president when he visited Jeddah late last year.
Biden departed for Israel late on Tuesday after spending part of the late afternoon and early evening shaking multiple hands on the White House South Lawn during a congressional picnic.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Aziz el Yaakoubi, Maha El Dahan and Jarrett Renshaw; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Catherine Evans)