US President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia, a country he once vowed to make a “pariah”, has again laid bare the duplicity of Washington’s foreign policy and human rights rhetoric.
The visit, which has now been postponed until July, has already stirred up a hornet’s nest, with human rights campaigners across the world urging Biden to call off the trip.
In an open letter on Thursday, a coalition of rights groups called on the US president not to go ahead with the trip in the absence of human rights commitments by Riyadh, warning it could encourage “further violations.”
“Efforts to repair the US relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia without a genuine commitment to prioritize human rights are not only a betrayal of your campaign promises but will likely embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” reads the letter by 13 NGOs.
“We urge your administration to secure genuine progress on human rights before acting in a manner that would bolster the status of the crown prince and his government.”
The letter has been signed by groups including Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Freedom House, The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, and Project on Middle East Democracy, among others.
Biden earlier this month confirmed he was planning a trip to Riyadh — a long-time US ally in the Arab world – in a startling volte-face that many have linked to Washington’s energy needs in the wake of the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia’s energy sector.
Pertinently, Biden had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his campaign for the presidency in late 2020, in contrast to his Republican rival Donald Trump’s appeasement of Saudis.
Saudi regime’s crimes
The oil-rich country’s leadership faces accusations of rampant human rights abuses, especially against religious minorities.
The country’s de-facto ruler, crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman, also stands accused of ordering the brutal killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.
“On the campaign trail, you promised that your administration would seek to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are” and indicated that “they have to be held accountable,” the letter states.
“Indeed, a congressionally mandated report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that was declassified by your administration in 2021 pointed to responsibility at the highest levels of the Saudi government, including Mohammed bin Salman, for the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet there has been no progress toward accountability for his murder, nor for any of the other abuses carried out by the Saudi government.
The letter further accuses the Saudi regime of continuing to “arbitrarily imprison, torture, and execute numerous individuals in violation of the internationally protected rights to a fair trial and due process”.
It refers to the cases of human rights defender Mohamed al-Rabea arbitrarily detained since 2018, humanitarian aid worker Abdelrahman al-Sadhan sentenced to 20 years in prison and a 20-year travel ban for his tweets, prominent scholar Salman Alodah sentenced to solitary confinement for nearly 5 years, and physician Dr. Lina al-Sharif imprisoned since May 2021 for promoting human rights online.
Last week, social activists had condemned Biden’s planned visit to Riyadh, calling it a blatant insult to human values amid Riyadh’s war in Yemen.
Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi academic who is also the son of jailed Islamic scholar Salman al-Awda, said he and other Saudi activists felt “betrayed” by Biden.
“President Biden came into office promising accountability for the crown prince’s reign of terror. But with one fell swoop, Biden is gambling all hope of justice for MBS’s countless victims like my father,” Alaoudh was quoted as saying by Middle East Eye.
Ukraine war and Biden’s U-turn
Biden’s U-turn on Saudi Arabia comes in the wake of a worsening crisis in the global energy market and soaring oil prices, fueled by the war in Ukraine.
The war, now into its fourth month, has led to the biggest disruption in energy supplies in decades, forcing Biden to re-calibrate his position on Saudi Arabia, according to observers.
However, Goldman Sachs’ head of energy analysis Damien Courvalin has already quashed hopes for a quick-fix solution to the world’s oil problem.
In an interview last week, he said the market was in a structural deficit that has been years in the making, and while some additional Saudi barrels could prevent a further spike in the immediate term, they are not a panacea to the problem.
The chairman of the US House intelligence committee, Adam Schiff, was quoted as saying last weekend that if he were Biden, he wouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia.
“I wouldn’t go. I wouldn’t shake his hand. This is someone who butchered an American resident, cut him up into pieces and in the most terrible and premeditated way,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, however, defended the trip, saying it would be in the context of “significant deliverables” for the American people in the Middle East.
“If he [the President] determines that it’s in the interest of the United States to engage with a foreign leader and that such an engagement can deliver results, then he’ll do so,” Karine said.
Meanwhile, there is a speculation that Biden during the trip intends to take steps to help normalize relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, following in the footsteps of his predecessor.