US President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia has been criticised by rights advocates, fearing this will endanger Saudi dissidents abroad and will be interpreted in Riyadh as giving the green light to restrict civil liberties domestically.
The US president will meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, in an abrupt reversal of his pledges to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its poor human rights record. Biden repeatedly promised that “human rights will be the centre of our foreign policy”.
Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said this week’s announcement was a “betrayal for Jamal Khashoggi, for Yemen, and a betrayal of what the Democratic Party stood for over the last three years”.
“They are returning to a path that has been well trodden by generations of American leaders,” Callamard said. “He is not treading a new path, not offering a new foreign policy at a time when the challenges we are confronting are such that the only way to respond to them is by building and creating something new.”
The White House said the president will travel to Saudi Arabia in July, a year and a half after he chose to declassify an intelligence report that Prince Mohammed approved the murder of Saudi journalist Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. Biden pledged to make the kingdom “a pariah” for the murder, and activists fear this visit will be seen as permission to allow the worst abuses to continue.
The average price of petrol has reached US$5 (£4) a gallon across the US. Sanctions on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine have further increased global oil prices. Biden is expected to ask the Saudis to pump more oil, but experts say the reality is more complicated and this is not enough to bring prices down, leaving questions over what the president expects to gain.
Abdullah Alaoudh, of the thinktank Democracy for the Arab World Now and son of jailed cleric Salman al-Odah, said: “Right before inauguration, he [Biden] said he will be sure to protect Saudi dissidents – those were his words. We’re not protected by someone shaking hands with the same person who is threatening us every day and taking our families hostage due to our activism here in the US.”
Alaoudh said next month’s visit to the kingdom was “a betrayal”.
“It’s a betrayal of me, who has been threatened every day, it’s sanctioning the authorities trying to execute my father, banning my family from travel, arresting my family members and threatening everyone I know simply because they know me.”
“If they don’t care about human rights and democracy, then what is the benefit of this visit? I believe, as an expert on Saudi, that it’s not going to be anything at all, which makes it frankly quite stupid from a political point of view,” Alaoudh said.
Callamard added: “I have absolutely no doubt that Joe Biden will get nothing in terms of human rights protections and the visit will be seen as a full victory and endorsement of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia executed 81 people in a single day in March, the largest mass execution in recent years. Half of those who died were arrested after pro-democracy protests, according to the UN.
Days later, as Boris Johnson arrived for an official visit, a further three men were executed. The UK prime minister said he had discussed human rights during talks with Prince Mohammed on energy supplies.
Biden’s visit was confirmed a day after a Saudi court upheld Abdullah al-Howaiti’s death sentence for alleged crimes committed as a child, despite a royal decree ending such executions.
“The visit has been confirmed the day after Saudi courts once again relied on the torture-induced ‘confession’ of a 14-year-old boy,” said Jeed Basyouni of campaign group Reprieve. “This signals to MBS that he can commit such horrific human abuses with impunity.”
A Saudi Arabian embassy spokesperson in Washington DC said strides had been made on human rights under Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reforms. “Our relationship will continue to deepen and strengthen because so much depends on it, and President Biden’s visit is a reflection of how important our cooperation is to both countries,” they said.
“Under Vision 2030, we have introduced far-reaching reforms, including some rights and regulations still not enjoyed universally in the west, such as equal pay for women and the guarantee of paid maternity leave … On human rights, we are very proud of our record as very few countries managed to accomplish positive change in such a short amount of time.”
After Biden’s visit was announced, the kingdom hired US crisis communications firm Qorvis to “provide public relations services to the Human Rights Commission of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” on a three-month, US$750,000 contract.
Lina al-Hathloul, a member of pro-democracy-in-exile political party NAAS, said that Biden should at least balance his meeting with Prince Mohammed by meeting Saudi dissidents overseas, and use his visit to push for the release of prisoners of conscience.
Hathloul’s sister, the feminist activist Loujain al-Hathloul, was imprisoned until last year and reportedly tortured. She remains subject to a travel ban along with other activists, now largely prevented from leaving Saudi Arabia or continuing their work.
“The priority should be political prisoners,” Hathloul said. “My request is that MBS should not be rehabilitated, at least not completely, and not legitimised.” (Source: The Guardian)