By Abdullah Alaoudh Source: Washington Post
Throughout the 2020 campaign, challenger Joe Biden forcefully denounced President Donald Trump’s affinity for autocratic leaders, declaring at the Democratic National Convention that “the days of cozying up to dictators [are] over.” Biden was unsparing when it came to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, in particular, vowing “we [are] not going to in fact sell more weapons” to the Saudi regime, and would instead make them “the pariah that they are” following the murder of Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi on MBS’s orders — as well as a litany of other human rights abuses.
The president is fond of saying, “I give you my word as a Biden”; now, after confirmation of an imminent face-to-face meeting between Biden and MBS next month, we’re left to question whether the Biden word is worth anything. Rewarding the murderous crown prince with continued U.S. military support, as the administration did in October, and now offering him a photo op represents a stunning about-face — a personal betrayal of MBS’s many victims and a license for dictators everywhere to blackmail the United States.
My father, Salman, a reformist scholar of Islamic law, has been imprisoned by the Saudi state since 2017 and faces a possible death sentence. His crime? An innocuous call for peace on Twitter as a Saudi-led bloc imposed a blockade on Qatar. A year after he was jailed, the Saudi government brought 37 charges against him, accusing him of inciting the public against the regime. My father has had no opportunity to defend himself in trial, and the prison conditions he is forced to endure — including solitary confinement and denial of medical treatment — violate international human rights standards.
Meanwhile, the Saudi authorities have banned 19 members of my family from leaving the kingdom — trapping them further with surveillance and threats — and officials continue to harass me even here in the United States, where I have lived since 2009. To this day, I receive regular death threats.
Tragically, my family’s story is hardly unique. Ever since the crown prince assumed de facto power in 2017, his rule has been characterized by brutality, including indiscriminate retribution against potential rivals and civilians, torture, and mass executions of prisoners without due process.
Given Biden’s repeated denunciations of the regime, and his administration’s promise to center U.S. foreign policy around human rights, seeking a “reset” of relations with MBS is hypocrisy incarnate. An administration official recently aimed to deflect criticism by pointing to the fact that Khashoggi was murdered during the Trump administration, and that Biden has already imposed sanctions on Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi’s murder. But as human rights defenders observed last week during the unveiling of “Jamal Khashoggi Way” outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, Biden has not held MBS directly accountable despite the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that he ordered Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment.
Dismissing past crimes not only is an act of moral bankruptcy but also overlooks the fact that MBS’s reign of terror is ongoing. What of the hundreds of Saudis who to this day face forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, travel bans and torture? What of the American citizens caught in MBS’s sweeping crackdown on dissent? Embracing MBS and granting concessions would validate the crown prince’s sense of impunity, sending an unmistakable signal that the United States will not back up its rhetoric with action. As MBS continues to rule with an iron fist, Biden and other world leaders willing to whitewash his regime’s crimes will be complicit.
Proponents of rapprochement argue that as the young successor to an ailing king, MBS will hold power for decades to come, and therefore direct engagement and reconciliation are simply realpolitik. But that is precisely why the Biden administration should act now to reel in MBS’s erratic behavior and make clear that continuing the United States’ long-standing security assistance to his country will be conditioned on meaningful reform. After all, there is likely little benefit to Americans for this betrayal; even an increase in Saudi oil sales is unlikely to significantly lower U.S. gas prices. It is the Saudis who could gain the most from rapprochement, and it is the Americans who have the upper hand in the relationship.
For those who have suffered at the hands of the crown prince, it was salt in the wound when Trump bragged that he “saved [MBS’s] ass” from the outcry over Khashoggi’s death. But how is Biden any better if he yields to this murderer, torturer and autocrat without meaningful concessions?
The president still has time yet to reconsider and stay true to his word. I don’t expect Biden to give life or liberty, as my father has, to defend democratic ideals in Saudi Arabia. But, at the very least, the president could stand with the defenders. Otherwise, he will make MBS’s victims the true pariahs.