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'We feel betrayed': Activists say Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia is a breach of values

US president can still leverage his visit and call for reforms in the kingdom, activists and rights groups say
A demonstrator dressed as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with blood on his hands protests outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington on 8 October 2018.
A demonstrator dressed as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with blood on his hands protests outside the Saudi embassy in Washington, on 8 October 2018 (AFP)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

Saudi activists and rights groups have condemned the upcoming visit of US President Joe Biden to Saudi Arabia, saying the president is betraying his values by meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been accused of rights abuses including murder, torture, and the killing of civilians in the Yemen war.

Several reports have indicated that the US president will be travelling to Saudi Arabia later this month where he will meet with bin Salman, who is also known by his initials MBS. In speaking with reporters on Friday, he confirmed that he would be travelling to the region at some point.

"Saudi Arabia would be included in that if I did go, but I have no direct plans at the moment," Biden said, adding that he was still committed to human rights.

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".

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"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 told Middle East Eye.

"It was salt in the wound when Trump bragged about 'saving [MBS’s] @$$.’ But how is Biden any better if he kisses the ring of this murderer, this torturer, this war criminal and autocrat?

"If Biden gives him the US meeting MBS so desperately wants, the bloody handshake will send a clear message to tyrants everywhere: you can always count on America to betray its values and reward bad behaviour."

The planned visit comes as the US president is seeking to secure lower fuel prices and shore up support for isolating Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

The meeting with MBS will mark a stark contrast to when Biden said he was looking to "recalibrate" the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, and said that he would only speak directly with MBS's father, the ailing King Salman.

Prior to taking office in January 2021, he vowed to make Saudi Arabia "the pariah that they are" over the killing of MEE columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Biden administration also said that it would prioritise human rights and promote democracy in its foreign policy, in contrast to the previous Donald Trump administration.

The Project on Middle East Democracy said on Twitter that the planned visit "is a slap in the face to activists, dissidents, women human rights defenders, journalists, & everyday citizens - in Saudi and abroad - who have been imprisoned, disappeared, and murdered".

US still has plenty of leverage

While many have described Biden's visit as a diplomatic victory for the Saudi crown prince and a huge concession to Riyadh, several Saudi activists have said that the US leader still has plenty of leverage to utilise to push MBS on a number of reforms in the country.

Prior to the visit, Opec+, which is led by Saudi Arabia, agreed to boost fuel production by hundreds of thousands of barrels per day after refusing to heed US calls to do so in the past several months.

For Lina al-Hathloul, sister of the previously jailed women's rights activist, Loujian al-Hathloul, the move reminds her of the concessions made by Saudi Arabia prior to Biden's inauguration into office.

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"The Saudi regime was very stressed about Biden coming to power and they knew they would be pressured into releasing at least the most prominent activists," Hathloul said during a Twitter Spaces panel on Friday.

"He applauded [Loujain's] release saying that it was the right thing to do, before even naming the king or before even naming the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman."

Hathloul said that with the leverage the US holds, Washington "has a duty to have preconditions in such visits".

"It's very dangerous not only for the Saudi people or for the repression inside the country to have such a high-level visit that will embolden and empower and legitimise MBS."

Alaoudh called on Biden to use his visit in part to speak to Saudi civil society, not just officials "who are not elected, who are not represented as a republic. Who are not reflecting what the Saudi public wants and feels".

"To uphold human rights principles, to uphold democratic principles means, at least, to hear and listen to people from all Saudi groups," he said at the Twitter Spaces panel.

"This is not just a human rights demand and democratic demand. This is also, talking from the realpolitik kind of perspective, good for Biden, because this is leverage that he can use against MBS."

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