Biden to Visit Saudi: Recalibration of the Relationship or Rehabilitation of MBS?
True to its word, the Biden White House is recalibrating its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Just not in the way we’d hoped.
Press reports suggest Biden will visit the kingdom in mid-July, and that the visit “could include a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” also known as MBS.
Nothing has been officially confirmed, and it’s not too late to cancel. If there are no guarantees the visit will result in immediate human rights gains, Biden shouldn’t go.
Biden should do what in 2019 he said he would, when he promised to make the Saudi government “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
That’s not what he’s doing.
In 2021, a report from the US intelligence community concluded MBS approved the operation to capture or kill Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018, yet the Biden administration decided not to hold the Crown Prince accountable and declined to ban MBS from the U.S. or weigh charges against him.
If President Biden shakes MBS’s hand and sits for photo ops in Saudi Arabia next month, it will look less like recalibration than rehabilitation for the Crown Prince.
Those of us who have been advocating on human rights in Saudi aren’t that surprised that the White House has sold out local activists again.
Abdulrahman Al Sadhan grew up in Port Hueneme, California, and was a humanitarian aid worker in Saudi before being put on trial last year for posting a satirical tweet mocking MBS’s ruling family. Now he’s serving 20 years in a Saudi prison.
His sister Areej told Human Rights First that “Biden promised he’ll make human rights a priority, but now he plans to meet with MBS without any real improvement to human rights, instead human rights have been worsening.” Human Rights First has written about his case before.
“We’re an American family who’ve been suffering from the Saudi brutality,” continued Areej. “My brother has been stolen from our lives, tortured and denied any communication with us, and after three years without charge he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in a sham secret trial that lacked all fair due process. Our hope as Americans was that our president would stand by his citizens, and by human rights like he promised.”
Previous administrations failed local activists in Saudi by failing to adequately press for their protection. President Obama said he cared about rights in Saudi but when he met the previous Saudi dictator in 2014, somehow they just “didn’t get to” the issue of rights.
The Obama administration offered Saudi $115 billion in military support, far more than any U.S. administration to that point had provided. President Trump – who went so far as to stick up for MBS’s denial of responsibility for Khashoggi’s killing – continued to ply the dictatorship and its authoritarian neighbors with more arms. Biden has continued this ignominious tradition. It must be noted that these sales have been made as Saudi pursued a devastating war in Yemen, where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed.
The White House will try to justify a visit to MBS by saying that unexpected things happen, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed everything, that Washington now unfortunately needs Saudi cooperation to reduce high fuel prices, that an oil price of $120 a barrel is electoral suicide for Biden.
If you’re only for human rights in some places, or only for human rights in Saudi until gas hits $5 a gallon, then you’re not really for human rights.
In that the case, don’t pretend human rights is a priority. Yet this administration has repeatedly made public claims about how much it values human rights.
Human rights would be at the center of its foreign policy, it said. It would host a Summit for Democracy “to stand together in defending against threats from autocracies” it said. These initiatives will look like Maximum Cringe if Biden enables the rehabilitation of MBS.
At the heart of the Biden administration is a disconnect between its words and actions on human rights. The administration claims in its rhetoric around its Summit for Democracy project that “Since day one, the Biden-Harris Administration has made clear that renewing democracy in the United States and around the world is essential to meeting the unprecedented challenges of our time” and that “one of democracy’s unique strengths [is] the ability to acknowledge its imperfections and confront them openly and transparently.”
This raises two immediate questions.
First, how does supporting MBS’s dictatorship help renew democracy, when his government jails and tortures activists for suggesting it?
Second, the democratic values the Summit for Democracy explicitly identifies include openness and transparency. The violent authoritarians in the Kremlin and Beijing don’t pretend to care about human rights, but at least WYSIWYG. Does the White House not see that when it makes and breaks promises on human rights — when Biden flip-flops on making Saudi a pariah state — it looks dishonest and deceitful, and gifts easy wins to the authoritarians?
Biden’s human rights record is a mess, at home and abroad. Meeting MBS without securing real human rights progress will undermine efforts to promote democracy, and further damage White House credibility.
We joined a dozen other human rights organizations this week to remind the President that “Efforts to repair the U.S. relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia without a genuine commitment to prioritize human rights… will likely embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.”
Unless the administration secures those commitments in advance President Biden should call off the trip.