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Biden's message to Middle East journalists: You are on your own

By paying court to one of the worst autocrats in the region, any credibility left to Biden's pledge to hold Mohammed bin Salman to account for Khashoggi’s murder will be blown away
US President Joe Biden listens during a bilateral meeting with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (out of frame) at the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, California on 9 June, 2022 (AFP)
Joe Biden’s visit to Riyadh will prove to the crown prince that you can do literally anything and get away with it if you have something Washington needs. (AFP)

Shortly after US President Joe Biden declassified the CIA report which found that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation to kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the state department announced a "Khashoggi ban".

Biden’s arrival in Riyadh next month will be a moment of huge personal satisfaction to Khashoggi’s killer

The idea was to ban anyone "directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten or harm journalists" from entering the US. It goes on to say family members could be subject to the same visa restrictions.

Announcing the ban, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it had already been applied to 76 Saudis, but as Senators Tom Malinowski and Brian Fitzpatrick found out, the list remains secret and certainly does not apply to the crown prince’s younger brother and Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid.

Prince Khalid has been a frequent visitor to Washington, where he was the Saudi ambassador at the time of Khashoggi’s death. The prince was central to efforts that gave the Saudi journalist the impression that embassies and consular premises were safe places for him.

Khalid told Khashoggi that it would be safe for him to go to the consulate in Istanbul where he was killed in a call intercepted by US intelligence. But the call itself does not contain evidence that Khalid himself knew Khashoggi would be killed.

Open question

According to Khashoggi’s friends in Istanbul, it was an intelligence officer in the consulate who raised the alarm that Khashoggi would return the following Monday, after he returned from a conference in London to have his first marriage officially annulled, and who triggered the operation by the Tiger Squad.  

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The logistics were prepared, but the operation itself was launched at the last minute.

It remains an open question as to whether Prince Khalid knew in advance about his elder brother’s designs. He is, however, part of the operation to lower Khashoggi’s guard over a period of time and persuade him it was safe to engage with Riyadh. And he is undeniably a close relative, under the terms of the ban, of the man responsible for a heinous murder.

The state department continues to stonewall enquires about Prince Khalid’s relationship to Khashoggi’s entrapment, the secrecy of the visa ban, or how many Saudis are still on it. A spokesman said: "Visa records are confidential under US law; therefore, we cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases. The 'Khashoggi ban' was announced in February 2021 and the restrictions remain in place."

What vestige of credibility left to this administration’s stated bid to hold Mohammed bin Salman to account for Khashoggi’s murder will be blown away by Biden’s forthcoming visit to Riyadh. 

Biden’s arrival in Riyadh next month will be a moment of huge personal satisfaction to Khashoggi’s killer. For one thing, everything the crown prince does or happens to him is personal. Like a British monarch in Tudor times, the future king thinks he owns the kingdom and its people are his chattel. They swear personal allegiance to him and he in return is free to enrich or dispose of them at will.

Turkish writer Hatice Cengiz (R), fiancée of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to a portrait of Khashoggi after unveiling it on the National Mall in Washington, DC., on October 1, 2021
Turkish writer Hatice Cengiz (R), fiancée of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to a portrait of Khashoggi on the National Mall in Washington, DC., on 1 October, 2021 (AFP)

On his instructions, the killer squad brought a body part of Khashoggi back to Riyadh. This is the mentality of the man who will shortly be king. Mohammed bin Salman, therefore, feels no remorse about killing Khashoggi. He is just surprised that it caused the fuss it did.

The big day

Biden’s visit will prove the crown prince right. You can do literally anything and get away with it if you have something Washington needs. All you have to do is to survive and the wheel of fortune turns in your favour. 

In preparation for the big day, Washington has begun to change the tone of its statements on the man Biden named a pariah.

Abandoning attempts to deal with the father and ignore the son - this too is a fiction as the father King Salman has all but disappeared from public life - the White House press secretary praised the role of the crown prince in extending the current ceasefire in Yemen.

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"This truce would not be possible without the cooperative diplomacy from across the region. We specifically recognize the leadership of King Salman and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in helping consolidate the truce," Karine Jean-Pierre said.

This is music to Mohammed bin Salman’s ears.

A modest man, Khashoggi, would have been surprised by the scandal his murder created. But he would at least have anticipated the moment when his cause would be abandoned by the two governments who did most to keep it alive - Turkey and the US. Trump made little secret of his admiration for dictators and their ability to kill their opponents. 

Biden on the other hand attempted to dress old-fashioned realpolitik in the tattered garb of a "values-based" push against autocracy.

Biden's message

Who is worse? The brazen hustler or the pious hypocrite? The man who says outright that Palestinians should take the money and give up their political rights, or the man who espouses those rights but who in reality will do nothing to advance them? I am not sure I can answer that question.

Investing in democracy is the only means of dousing the flames of repression, instability, economic collapse and mass migration in the region

By paying court to one of the worst autocrats the Middle East region, let alone Saudi Arabia, has known, Biden will be sending a message. It's ice cold and will penetrate the furthest reaches of the desert.

To journalists and activists brave enough to stick their heads above the parapet, Biden is saying: "Forget my words. They were just for the cameras. Look at my actions, and you will see you guys are on your own. America does not have your back."

This is the message he will give to the relatives of Ayman Hadhoud, the Egyptian economist whose crime was to investigate how the military suppressed private-sector competition. He died in custody in hospital a month after he disappeared.  

Middle East Eye obtained photographs of blunt force trauma to his head as well as burns to his face, signs of torture. Or what about Mustafa al-Najjar, a dentist and former parliamentarian who was given a three-year sentence for “contempt of court”? He, too, disappeared. 

To those in the West who say Egyptian dissidents deserve their fate because they are radical Islamists, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has long since stopped hunting his victims from one political faction only. 

Hadhoud was founder of Egypt's liberal Reform and Development Party. Najjar was a writer for al-Masry Al-Youm, and Shorouk was known for his moderate reformism. There is nothing moderate or reformist about their fates.

As in Putin’s Russia, Egyptian journalists risk prison on charges of “spreading false news”, such as journalists Hala Fahmy and Safaa al-Korbiji. Korbiji highlighted the cost of living crisis, calling on citizens to take to the streets over Eid. Even retired journalists are targets. Tawfik Ghanem, 66, has spent a year in jail solely for his media work. He is denied health care and held in gross conditions. He was arrested without a warrant and his prison term is continuously extended.

Like Putin, America’s key allies put huge effort into suppressing a free press and like Putin, they go to extraordinary lengths to whitewash history

Like Putin, America’s key allies put huge effort into suppressing a free press. They work as a team. The departure of the Egyptian opposition satellite television station Mekameleen from Turkey was celebrated as an achievement of Saudi foreign policy. 

Mubarak al-Ati, a Saudi political analyst, called the closure Mekameleen "a victory for the long-strategic policy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. In fact, Mekameleen is about to re-open from London, Dublin and the US.

Like Putin, they go to extraordinary lengths to whitewash history. Al-Ikhtyiar 3 or "The Choice 3", the TV show that aired in Ramadan, claims to show Sisi’s rise to power by portraying him as honest, loyal and honourable, and Egypt’s elected President Mohamed Morsi, the man he imprisoned and his family claim, had killed, as a devious schemer.

A journalist carries a placard which reads in Arabic 'Journalist is staying and the tyrants are on the demise' in front of the Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo on November 19, 2016
A journalist carries a placard which reads in Arabic "Journalist is staying and the tyrants are on the demise" in front of the Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo on 19 November 2016 (AFP)

On the showing of the 25th episode, Sisi could not contain himself: "Maybe a lot of us are wondering, what was the objective of making this series?" the president said. "The goal was that we record honestly, loyally and honourably in a time when there was no honour, no truth."

Killing the truth

Killing journalists and killing the truth matters at a time like this. It should matter to a US president as well. Because like it or not, the days when the US can claim hegemony over the Middle East are over.

Even its allies - especially its allies - doubt American intentions and distrust the guarantees given.

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To return any sense of stability to the region at a time of unprecedented global challenges, it will be up to each nation to set its own course. There will be no one there to do it for them. 

This means that investing in democracy and democratic behaviour is the only means of dousing the flames of repression, instability, economic collapse and mass migration. Democracy is the only stabiliser left.

Investing in autocrats makes no sense for US foreign policy. 

Long gone are the days when Washington can operate on the principle enunciated in the famous exchange between Franklin D Roosevelt and his secretary of state, Sumner Welles, where Welles said "Somoza's a bastard!"and FDR replied, "Yes, but he's our bastard."

The Middle East is full of "these bastards" and America no longer has exclusive rights over how they behave. Worryingly for Washington, the franchise is increasingly behaving autonomously. Washington has lost control over its brand.

Will MBS throw Putin under a bus after Biden’s visit, by kicking Russia off Opec+? Highly unlikely. Will Dubai abandon its lucrative trade in the gold that Russian mercenaries are butchering gold miners for in the Central African Republic? Again highly unlikely.

Israel will get its normalisation with Saudi Arabia and that will be presented by Biden as a huge takeaway from his visit. All he would have done is to cement a pact between Middle East’s most egregious occupier with its most venal dictator. All done under a Democrat "values-based" presidency.

If this is Biden’s idea of values, better to have Trump back. At least there is no sham.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was The Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.