President Joe Biden will have only himself to blame if he feels a little uncomfortable this week when he sits down with the man who runs Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed “Bone Saw” bin Salman. After the CIA accused MbS of ordering the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi — dismembered with a bone saw — Biden said Saudi Arabia had “no redeeming social feature” and should be made “a pariah.” This was a satisfying bit of moral posturing during a presidential election campaign, but costly now, in a world where Americans are paying $5 a gallon for gas and Russia is funding its war in Ukraine by selling oil at $100 a barrel. The US needs the Saudis to crank up production. For MbS, this means literally getting away with murder.
Biden has the decency to squirm about his reversal. At the NATO summit a couple of weeks ago, he was asked by journalists how he could go to Saudi Arabia after everything he had said. The president explained that he was attending a meeting of Gulf countries that, coincidentally, was in Saudi Arabia, and so, maybe — he didn’t know — he might bump into MbS if he happened to be around. Biden’s exact words reveal an inner conflict. “What we’re trying to do,” he said, “is that the G- — it’s the Gulf states plus three, and so, I’m sure — it’s in Saudi Arabia, but it’s not about Saudi Arabia. It’s in Saudi Arabia. And so there’s no commitment that is being made or — I’m not even sure; I guess I will see the king and the crown prince, but that’s — that’s not the meeting I’m going to. They’ll be part of a much larger meeting.”
Clearly not caring much about Biden’s embarrassment, the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC helpfully put out a press release saying the president would be welcomed by King Salman (Saudi Arabia’s ostensible ruler) but would then go on to meet the crown prince (Saudi Arabia’s real ruler). And this would be no mere handshake. The two men would “hold official talks that will focus on various areas of bilateral co-operation, including space, renewable energy, cybersecurity, climate and environmental initiatives, food and energy security and expanding trade and commercial ties.” If Biden does sit down with Prince Bone Saw, will he raise the issue of human rights abuses in the Kingdom? He might, but it’s hard to wag your finger about human rights while your hand is out to beg for oil.
Needless to say, Britain is in the same position. Boris Johnson went to Saudi Arabia in March, also to ask for the oil taps to be opened. A few days before he arrived, Saudi Arabia executed eighty-one people in a single day, a record. Many had been convicted of “terrorism,” but Saudi activists said political prisoners were among those killed. The British prime minister did not speak publicly about this, or Khashoggi’s murder, during his trip. When pressed, he said he “always” raised human rights issues but “it’s best if the details of those conversations are kept private, they’re more effective that way.” The foreign secretary, Liz Truss, fell back on the same formula last month when — artfully questioned in the Foreign Affairs Committee — she found herself unable to name a single instance when she had raised human rights with a Gulf state. She would have a think and get back to the committee, she said. These private conversations — if they really take place — are of course easy for the Saudis to brush off.
Saudi Arabia likes to use its terrorism court to deal with critics of the regime. Perhaps the most famous of the court’s victims was a young woman named Loujain al-Hathloul. She was jailed for treason, the charge sheet including such offenses as “meeting employees of embassies; participating in a documentary with British journalists; spreading false information to damage the Kingdom’s reputation; and inciting change in the political system.” She told her family that while under arrest she was tortured by the man accused of Khashoggi’s murder, a functionary at the Royal Court named Saud al-Qahtani. She remembers him telling her: “I’m going to kill you. But first I’ll rape you. If I wanted, I could cut your body into pieces and throw you into the sewers. No one would know what happened to you.”
Al-Hathloul was freed immediately after Biden was elected, the Saudis apparently panicked that he was serious about making them “pay the price” for Khashoggi. She remains under a travel ban and unable to speak freely. It will be interesting to see if Biden’s visit will ease those restrictions, or if she will once again be at risk of jail. Many of Saudi Arabia’s democracy activists are terrified about what the visit could mean. Abdullah Alaoudh, a young dissident living in exile in the US, told me that any meeting with MbS would be a “betrayal.” Alaoudh works for the organization Khashoggi founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now. He says he gets several death threats a day. He suspects some are from people working for the Saudi intelligence services and MbS. “This visit will embolden him to be even more brutal.”
Before setting off, Biden — or his staff — wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post defending the trip. He said that he had reversed “the blank-check policy” towards Saudi Arabia taken by his predecessor, Donald Trump. But: “As president, it is my job to keep our country strong and secure” — and that meant dealing with the Saudis. Is this a return to “realism” in foreign policy? “America first,” as Trump would have said? It is certainly recognition of Saudi Arabia’s importance for achieving American aims in the region. A lasting ceasefire in Yemen, containing Iran, ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cutting the price of oil — all roads lead through Riyadh.
Biden has said that one reason he’s going to Saudi Arabia is to “deepen Israel’s integration in the region, which is good — good for peace and good for Israeli security.” Israel already has an alliance with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, part of the Abraham Accords, underwritten by the United States. A new alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia would no doubt come with similar American backing. For all the appearance of realpolitik, the US is becoming ever more entangled in alliances that may prove expensive. What if Israel and Saudi Arabia were to attack Iran — would the US defend them from retaliation?
Now, the US — and Britain — have decided to put up with human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia in order to stop Russian human rights abuses in Ukraine. If that comes with cheaper oil and some profitable arms contracts, so much the better. We do not choose the Saudi leader. Or as Truss said to the UK Foreign Affairs Committee: “We’re not dealing in a perfect world. We’re dealing in a world where we need to make difficult decisions.” In this imperfect world, expect to hear a lot less about human rights in the oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf. The era of posturing about Saudi Arabia is over.