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US-Saudi rift shows Biden's lack of commitment on human rights

Rights activists and experts say the US response to Opec+ shows that Biden never put human rights at the centre of his foreign policy
US President Joe Biden takes notes while an usher serves coffee during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 16 July 2022.
US President Joe Biden takes notes while an usher serves coffee during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 16 July 2022 (AFP)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

The US-Saudi row over the Opec+ decision to cut oil production has laid bare a hole in the Biden administration's commitment to a human rights-centred foreign policy, human rights advocates tell MEE, as the recent steps being considered to recalibrate ties have been what Saudi activists have been calling for since Biden entered office.

Following the Opec+ decision, the US was quick in its condemnation and said it was willing to reevaluate its relationship with the country "right away". White House National Security adviser Jake Sullivan said that this review would include arms sales, a major bilateral issue with Saudi Arabia because it obtains 70 percent of its arms from the US.

When Saudi Arabia responded by saying its decision was market-based and not political, White House national security council spokesman John Kirby accused the Saudis of trying to "spin or deflect" the facts.

Yet the Biden administration has only begun this re-evaluation after two years in office, despite the president making a promise on the campaign trail to reassess ties with the kingdom over its human rights violations. When that promise was made, rights advocates hoped that Biden's time in office would lead to a change in the kingdom.

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"Human rights has not received the attention and focus that it deserves and that this administration said it was placing. They've repeatedly said human rights will be at the centre of foreign policy and that just has not been true when it comes to Saudi Arabia," Seth Binder, advocacy director at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Middle East Eye.

"In terms of great power competition, this very much seems to be the lens with which this administration is viewing much of its foreign policy, including in the Middle East and North Africa and with its relationship to Saudi Arabia."

And now, even as the administration turns its sights to what it perceives to be a Saudi alignment with Russia, the kingdom continues to commit human rights abuses with little US attention.

Saudi Arabia sentenced three tribesmen to death for resisting displacement after their tribe was forcibly removed to make way for the $500bn Neom megacity. And Saudi American Saad Ibrahim Almadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison for his tweets. The State Department said it "consistently and intensively raised our concerns regarding the case" of Almadi.

"Human rights was not a priority. I think it was campaign promises. It's a good thing to say during campaigns. This is what people want to hear. And once they're in office, what they see as more important to interests are prioritised, including oil and arms sales," Lina al-Hathloul, prominent Saudi rights activist and sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, told MEE.

Biden raised hopes, then fell short

"The rhetoric from the administration during the campaign was strong. And I think the Saudi regime was, in some respects, scared. They were on their heels, they were nervous on what this would mean for the relationship and what this would mean for US policy," Binder said.

Between November 2020 through February 2021, Saudi officials made a few significant moves on human rights issues in the kingdom. They released Hathloul's sister Loujain who had been jailed for three years for her rights activism, although Loujain al-Hathloul remains under a travel ban and is currently barred from leaving the kingdom.

The Saudi government also released Salah al-Haider, the son of a leading women's rights activist, and Bader al-Ibrahim, a writer and doctor, after being detained for nearly two years.

Two days before Biden's inauguration last year, the Saudi Arabian Human Rights Commission released a statement highlighting that executions in the country saw an 85 percent drop between 2019 and 2020.

'Unfortunately, the Biden administration didn't use the leverage it had when it comes to pressuring Saudi'

- Lina al-Hathloul, Saudi rights activist

Yet the administration then decided to release its intelligence report on the death of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi on 26 February 2021. The report named Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as being responsible for the killing but did not issue sanctions on the kingdom's heir to the throne. The decision fell short of the expectations of rights groups while angering the Saudi government.

"But then the administration released the Khashoggi report, and importantly, did not sanction the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And since then, I feel like what you've seen is a crown prince who's been emboldened and rehabilitated."

Several weeks later in March, the Saudi Press Agency announced that the government had executed 81 people in a single day, a stark contrast to Riyadh's announcement in January.

The Biden administration did say in February 2021 that it would no longer support offensive "operations" in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, but lawmakers have raised concerns over whether that distinction actually stops weapons and support going to the Saudi military.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a sharp rise in the price of oil in global markets, prompting the US president to travel to Saudi Arabia, where he met with and bumped fists with the Saudi crown prince in the coastal city of Jeddah.

No serious calls to look at the US-Saudi relationship came from the Biden administration until the Opec+ decision in early October.

"It's not an opinion, it's just the reality. Unfortunately, the Biden administration didn't use the leverage it had when it comes to pressuring Saudi," said Hathloul.

Trump was more transparent than Biden

The Biden administration's approach to Saudi Arabia over the past two years has been quite different from its predecessor, the Donald Trump administration, but much of this had to do with rhetoric.

Trump was transparent in how he approached Riyadh and the Saudi crown prince. His first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia, breaking a longstanding tradition of US presidents using their first foreign visit to meet one of their neighbours in Mexico or Canada.

The visit will be long remembered for the photo of Trump alongside Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi placing their hands on a glowing white orb.

Then, when Mohammed bin Salman visited the White House in 2018, he and Trump sat in the Oval Office and the US president handed the crown prince a poster showing a graphic of US arms sales to the kingdom - a clear sign of how Trump viewed the relationship.

"I know [senators] are talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they’re [Saudi Arabia] spending $110bn on military equipment and on things that create jobs," Trump said in remarks to reporters on 11 October 2018, days after the killing of Khashoggi.

"I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of $110bn into the United States."

Binder noted that rhetoric does in certain areas "make a difference". However, soon it was clear that the Biden administration really was similar to Trump, in that energy was a driving factor to the US-Saudi relationship.

"In essence, [the Saudis] called the administration's bluff and the administration folded their cards," Binder said.

"When it came to any tangible costs to the relationship, what you saw was an effort culminating in the Jeddah trip to repair ties and get back to the way things used to be under the Trump administration and under previous administrations."

The outrage in Washington has led to several calls from lawmakers, including Senator Bob Menendez who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

While the calls are tied to the Opec+ decision, rights advocates say that the US can still follow through on its rights commitments by ensuring that any withdrawal of support or aid to Saudi Arabia is contingent upon the country's human rights situation.

"[Mohammed bin Salman] is more naturally aligned with authoritarians in China and Russia. And so in order for us, in a sense, to rein in and push back on what MBS is doing, human rights and what's happening inside Saudi Arabia has to come back to and be at the forefront of what US policy looks like," Binder said.

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