White House officials have confirmed that President Biden intends to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks. Although Mr Biden warned on Friday that he still had ‘no direct plans’ for such a trip, it was a classic no-nonsense denial, issued perhaps because details still remained. last minute to solve. The bottom line is that, barring any unforeseen changes, the President will significantly soften the American stance towards the regime whose de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), bears primary responsibility for the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi – among other human rights abuses – and whom the president had previously promised and tried to keep at a greater distance.
Realpolitik has triumphed over moral considerations. Like so many of his predecessors, Mr Biden has made US access to the kingdom’s vast oil supplies his top priority. Shaken by rising gas prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the administration pleaded with the Saudis to tap their oil reserves. It is probably the largest remaining resource of its kind that could come to market in the near term, although it is likely to have only modest effects on gas prices. A presidential visit to Saudi Arabia, and the legitimacy it bestows on the crown prince, is part of the price MBS is making Washington pay for this and other favors, including steps towards recognizing Israel and a tenuous halt to Saudi Arabia’s war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
It’s a deeply disappointing reversal, but Mr. Biden could still salvage some of his original principled stance. He could do this in two ways: first, by raising US human rights concerns, including the Khashoggi case, while he is in Saudi Arabia – not just privately, of a meeting with MBS, but publicly, in any forum, like a press conference, that shows up. Mr. Biden should fully exploit any opening to do so, as presidents visiting other authoritarian states have at least tried to do in the past. Second, he should demand freedom for the many people in Saudi Arabia who are detained or otherwise restricted in their freedoms for political reasons. Indeed, Mr. Biden is expected to insist that some or all be released during his visit. Three dual US-Saudi citizens – Walid al-Fitaihi, Salah al-Haidar and Bader al-Ibrahim – have been arrested and detained on trumped up charges at different times since MBS launched a crackdown on domestic opponents in November 2017. released from prison, in part because of US pressure, they remain officially under suspicion and banned from leaving the country, according to Freedom Initiative, a US-based nonprofit that monitors human rights in the Middle East.
The president may also schedule time during his visit to speak with another US-backed dictator, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi of Egypt, who will be in Saudi Arabia at the same time for a regional rally. If so, Mr Biden is expected to push for the release of Egyptian dissident Alaa Abdel Fattah, 40, a secular pro-democracy activist who has been jailed for much of the past decade since Sisi took power in a a coup. Modest as they are, such gestures are the least Mr. Biden can do to retain US consistency and credibility on human rights issues in the Arab world.