When President Joe Biden defended his plans to visit Saudi Arabia, a country he once promised to turn into an international “pariah,” Saudi Arabians who have fought to reform the absolute monarchy called the trip a betrayal that could have devastating consequences.
“We feel betrayed,” Abdullah Alaoudh, a US-based leader of the National Assembly Party, an opposition group, told NBC News in a telephone interview on Monday. “We were promised to be protected from MBS,” he said, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
When Biden is expected to meet the Crown Prince, Alaoudh said he feared the president’s visit could encourage Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader to “be more brutal and junk.” Bin Salman has led to a repression of reformers and women rights activists, and the CIA has said it probably ordered the brutal killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Bin Salman has said he takes full responsibility for Khashoggi’s assassination, but denies any involvement in the killing of the journalist – an outspoken critic of the Crown Prince.
The regional power broker Saudi Arabia, one of the largest oil producers in the world and home to Islam’s two holiest sites, has been a major US ally. And before Khashoggi’s assassination of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Crown Prince had launched an attempt to modernize the deeply conservative kingdom economically and socially. Reforms mean women are now allowed to drive, and cinemas have opened for the first time in 35 years.
He has also embarked on an ambitious international campaign to rebrand the kingdom by courting politicians, business leaders, sports tournaments and players, influential social media and journalists from around the world.
The Crown Prince’s attempt to present himself as a reformer was really crushed with the assassination and dismantling of Khashoggi in October 2018, but even before the assassination, Saudi Arabia carried out public beheadings and imprisoned activists. And thousands of civilians have died in the war in neighboring Yemen, where Saudi-led forces are fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
“I do not have much hope that the United States will help us with human rights.”
said Ali Adubisi
In light of the Crown Prince’s tarnished reputation in the wake of Khashoggi’s death, what the royal now wants most from the United States is “recognition and legitimacy,” said Alaoudh, who is also the Gulf’s director of democracy for the Arab world. Now, or Dawn, a nonprofit organization founded by Khashoggi, which promotes human rights in the Middle East.
And Biden’s turn could effectively help the powerful crown prince “get away with murder,” he said.
In an op-ed published by The Washington Post entitled “Why I am going to Saudi Arabia”, Biden defended the planned visit, although he acknowledged that “there are many who disagree with my decision” to travel to the kingdom .
“A more secure and integrated Middle East benefits Americans in many ways,” he wrote. “Its waterways are crucial to global trade and the supply chains we depend on. Its energy resources are crucial to mitigating the impact on global supplies of Russia’s war in Ukraine.”
The United States is among many Western countries that want the Gulf states to increase oil production, something they hope will alleviate the politically damaging energy crisis and weaken Russia’s stronghold in this market.
Saudi Arabia is the key to these efforts, although Biden has previously said he will not specifically ask the country to increase production during this trip.
In his statement, Biden said Saudi Arabia has “helped restore unity among the six countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, has fully supported the ceasefire in Yemen and is now working with my experts to help stabilize oil markets.”
“My goal was to reorient – but not break – the relationship with a country that has been a strategic partner for 80 years,” he said.
But while oil will undoubtedly be a major focus of the trip, Biden said: “My views on human rights are clear and long-lasting, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank. ”
Alaoudh said he hoped that was true. He said, however, that he feared that Biden’s journey would undo any progress made in pressuring Saudi Arabia to make reforms.
He also noted that the president’s statement had a completely different tone than the comments Biden made in the run-up to the 2020 election, when he promised to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing.
‘A great victory for MBS’
Lina al-Hathloul, whose sister – women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul – remains under a travel ban after being jailed in Saudi Arabia before being released last year, said that regardless of Biden’s intentions, his visit would be seen as a major victory for the Crown Prince.
“It’s not about the intention of President Biden when he goes in there and meets MBS,” she said while speaking at a news conference on Monday, urging Biden to press for the release of political prisoners during her visit. in the kingdom. “It’s about what the consequences will be when he goes there and (is) in the same room as MBS – what the regime will do from that visit. It will be seen as a great benefit for MBS.”
Loujain al-Hathloul’s family and others had hoped for more support from Biden, who publicly confirmed and welcomed the news of her release from prison in February 2021.
The prominent activist was arrested in May 2018 along with several other female activists, after making a name for herself as one of the few women who openly called for women’s right to drive a car. She also called for an end to Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male guardianship, which had long restricted women’s freedom of movement.
Ali Adubisi, director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, also said that Biden’s visit would “send MBS a message that no matter what he does in Saudi Arabia and abroad in places like Yemen, he will not be isolated or pressured. of the international community. “
“This visit is for the interests of Biden and his government, for their political goals in Saudi Arabia and the region in general,” he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
“I do not have much hope that the United States will help us with human rights,” Adubisi said, however. “Because it has historically been responsible for strengthening the Saudi government since its inception, sending weapons and protecting it in difficult situations.”
“The United States will help Saudi Arabia in any situation, which is why Saudi Arabia does not care about human rights because it knows the United States will protect it,” he said.