Upon taking office President Joe Biden declared “America is back,” and many were optimistic, anticipating a return to the vigorous pursuit of diplomacy along with action in accordance with American values. Biden assured America that his return to diplomacy would be “rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”
Yet Biden’s four-day visit to Israel and the Gulf countries tells a different story. Biden penned in a Washington Post op ed beforehand that the purpose of his trip to the Middle East was to “counter Russia’s aggression, put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China, and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world.” Many are now challenging Biden’s decision upon his first visit to the Middle East to focus only on “American interests” as a reversal and a reneging of promises to the American people that may ultimately undermine America’s interests in the region.
While he may have kept his promise of bringing back diplomacy, Biden is breaking another he made to the American people: to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” on the world stage. Instead, his visit is doing just the opposite, rehabilitating the image of the repressive kingdom and in particular its Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), whom the CIA named with “high confidence” the mastermind of the brutal extraterritorial execution of Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.
“American Interests” versus “American Values”
On the campaign trail, in light of the brutal murder, President Biden had called for a “recalibration” of relations with the kingdom. And last month, President Biden said “I’m not going to meet with MBS.” However, the White House subsequently confirmed that he would meet with the crown prince, but as part of a broader bilateral meeting with his father, King Salman, and the country’s leadership team.
In a statement made during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on day two of his four-day trip to the Middle East, President Biden said that the Saudis must be involved in any effort to stabilize the volatile region.
“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear and I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” he answered a journalist. “The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia is to promote U.S. interests in a way that I think we have an opportunity to reassert our influence in the Middle East.”
But Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia is being condemned by many, including Saudi activists and Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.
“You can imagine how shocked and disappointed I was to learn that you would break your promise and travel to Saudi Arabia to likely meet with the crown prince — the person who U.S. intelligence determined was responsible for ordering Jamal’s murder,” she wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post.
Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan characterized Biden’s bid for regional hegemony as “going to Jiddah on bended knee to shake the ‘pariah’s’ bloodstained hand.” The accompanying Washington Post illustration, using photos by Kyodo News/Getty Images and iStockphoto, puts the meeting in stark terms.
Ryan asserted that “turning a blind eye to Jamal’s murder in an effort to lower gasoline prices in advance of this fall’s midterms” will signal that “American values are negotiable.”
Court Cases Against MBS
Complicating matters perhaps is the civil lawsuit brought jointly in a US federal court by Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), an organization founded by Khashoggi before his death, and Cengiz, seeking damages and accountability for Khashoggi’s death. Cengiz’s hopes for accountability in Turkey went up in smoke earlier this year when the Turkish government transferred the court case file to Saudi Arabia, saying it couldn’t prosecute because of a lack of Saudi cooperation.
Months ago, MBS’s lawyers filed to dismiss the US case on grounds that the court lacks jurisdiction over the crown prince. On July 1, Federal District Court Judge John Bates issued an order declaring, “In the court’s view, some of the grounds for dismissal advanced by defendants might implicate the interests of the United States; moreover, the court’s resolution of defendants’ motions might be aided by knowledge of the United States’ views.” The judge allowed the US government until August 1 to declare its interests in the case or give the court notice that it has no view on the matter.
The Khashoggi murder is not the only one dogging Biden’s visit to the region. Biden is also being criticized for failing to do anything about the Israeli military’s June killing of an American citizen, journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a popular reporter in the region for the last two decades. Despite wearing protective body armor marked “PRESS” and a helmet covering her head, Palestinians assert that she was targeted by an Israeli IDF sniper and deliberately shot while reporting the news with her film crew. Live-streamed video footage showing the scene and circumstances surrounding her killing have upped the debate over who is culpable and who should be held to account.
While the U.S. State Department concluded that Israeli gunfire was “likely responsible” for Abu Akleh’s death, it said it had “no reason to believe that this was intentional.” Nevertheless, on July 8, Abu Akleh’s family sent a letter to President Biden demanding a meeting with him during his visit and calling for accountability. Expectations are low that there will be any.
A meeting of the US president with MBS will give the Saudi leader “exactly what three years of Saudi PR campaigns, lobbying expenses, and even a new golf league have not: a return to respectability,” according to Ryan. “This undeserved absolution will, in turn, only undermine the foreign-policy goals Biden hopes to achieve.”
“Jamal Khashoggi Way” Highlights Ongoing Saudi Human Rights Violations
DAWN announced in June the unveiling of a new street sign renaming the street directly in front of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C. The new name, “Jamal Khashoggi Way,” will be a constant reminder to those coming and going from the Embassy of the “living memorial to the former Saudi activist, journalist and Washington, D.C. resident Jamal Khashoggi and a call for continued action to demand accountability against his murderers.”
DAWN Executive Director Sarah Leah Whitson said that renaming the street “honors the courage and sacrifice of a man who stood up to the tyranny of a brutal dictator and will remind the Saudi government every hour of every day that we hold it responsible for his horrible murder.”
Since Khashoggi’s murder, the Crown Prince has continued to “torture, murder, and disappear political activists and anyone else he perceives as posing a threat to his rule, however farfetched,” according to DAWN. The list of political prisoners continues to grow: Salem Almuzaini, Prince Salman (Ghazalan) Al Saud, Salman Alodah, Waleed Sami Abulkhair, and Omar and Sarah Aljabri.
The Saudi regime also continues to conduct mass executions and executions of minors, despite a 2020 royal decree that it had ended capital punishment for juveniles. Lina Hathloul, the lawyer and activist sister of Loujain Hathloul who, after the law had been changed, was imprisoned for more than 1000 days for demanding women’s right to drive, asserted in an interview on CNN that just weeks ago the kingdom executed someone for alleged crimes committed as a child. The Saudi “reforms” are simply a “façade,” she said. Hathloul predicted that, absent accountability, in ten years’ time, “MBS will be the next Putin.”
Biden’s Fist Bump with MBS
According to a White House communique received by Inside Arabia, President Biden met with Saudi leadership on July 15, and addressed six different issues. After avoiding the conventional handshake with a fist bump of MBS, Biden praised Saudi Arabia for its role in the current cease fire in Yemen and, ironically given that the Saudi-led coalition’s air strikes are what pulverized the country’s people and infrastructure, applauded the regime for supporting humanitarian efforts there to address the world’s worst humanitarian disaster created by the Saudi regime. Biden also claimed to have raised human rights concerns, including—in his words—the “outrageous” murder of Khashoggi. When asked in a press conference what the Crown Prince had said in response to his criticism, Biden replied that MBS “basically said that he — he was not personally responsible for it. I indicated that he probably was.” But that seems to be the end of the matter.
Despite Biden not being “silent,” there have been as yet no tangible actions to achieve accountability for the vile murder of Khashoggi. Moreover, given Biden’s putting American interests ahead of any real action upholding American values, it seems likely that in the US court case the government may simply punt and take no position as the judge invited it to do by August 1. Thus, any last hope of judicial accountability may also fail.
Meanwhile, as the Saudi kingdom’s image is burnished by photo ops with the American President and new business deals, nothing changes. DAWN’s Whitson encapsulated what many fear: “Biden’s humiliating trip to Saudi Arabia, rewarding MBS with new arms sales and unprecedented defense agreement sends one message to tyrants around the world: brutality wins.”
And indeed, Whitson is not wrong. On Thursday July 14 just as President Biden was about to meet with leaders of the GCC countries including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Emirati police arrested Khashoggi’s former lawyer Asim Ghafoor at Dubai airport as he was in transit to Istanbul. Ghafoor sits on the board of DAWN and was a close friend of Khashoggi. He previously represented both Khashoggi and his fiancée, Cengiz.
A UAE court had convicted the civil rights lawyer, who is a U.S. citizen, in absentia on charges of money laundering and tax evasion at some time in the past. After his arrest, Ghafoor denied the accusations and said he had no idea of any convictions.
Nevertheless, on Saturday July 16 an Emirati court sentenced him to three years in prison followed by deportation. It rejected his request to be released on bail Monday as he looks to appeal the conviction, according to his lawyer, Faisal Gill.
The UAE falsely portrayed Ghafoor’s arrest as a coordinated move with the U.S. to “combat transnational crimes.” On Monday, the United States disputed that, saying it had not sought Ghafoor’s arrest.
While the State Department said there is “no indication his detention has anything to do with his association with Jamal Khashoggi,” it cautioned that the U.S. is “still gathering information.”
Meanwhile, it’s business as usual. Ghafoor remains in prison in Abu Dhabi for a conviction obtained seemingly without due process, without notice, and without an opportunity to defend himself, and Biden’s silence is troubling.