Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” What happened?
Five years after a Saudi hit squad murdered, dismembered, and disappeared the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has won.
It was President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner who embraced Saudi Arabia after the killing and then set the conditions for the ongoing Saudi victory over human rights. But Joe Biden also deserves blame.
On the campaign trail, candidate Biden had pledged to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to account, saying he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” Initially, Biden held a hard line, but within a year that evaporated. He traveled to the kingdom in summer 2022 in an about-face visit that resulted in an unforgettable fist bump.
Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and even nonprofits have been all too willing to rehabilitate MBS’s image, in large part thanks to Saudi Arabia’s economic largesse. Media organizations and think tanks, too, have taken on Saudi funding and hosted the kingdom’s officials at public events. It’s MBS’s world: Can I interest you in a round of Saudi-run golf? Saudi-funded tech products? A quick trip to an art fair and tango workshop in the once ultra-conservative kingdom?
But what’s new today, on the fifth anniversary of Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never being seen again, is that Saudi Arabia is no longer on its back foot in Washington. MBS has achieved a hearty welcome back into the good graces of the once outspokenly critical Biden and his administration.
How else can we read the unfolding dynamic in which the crown prince has Washington reportedly considering an unprecedented array of inducements — a potential security pact and a nuclear program — in exchange for the kingdom signing a diplomatic agreement with Israel?
Even now, MBS fashions himself a reformist, a line repeated by retired officials from Democratic and Republican administrations, and by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair whose institute receives funds to advise Saudi Arabia. Yet political rights in his country remain as elusive as ever.
As Khashoggi wrote in the Washington Post in November 2017 amid a violent crackdown of royals and businesspeople, “As of now, I would say Mohammed bin Salman is acting like Putin.” And he continues to, with far fewer consequences for his actions than the Russian autocrat.
MBS has won over Washington
Washington and world capitals are abuzz about the idea of the kingdom establishing diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.
The Saudi side appears to need concessions from the US to make that happen, and those inducements appear to be more of a priority for Riyadh than securing any protections for Palestinians.
US officials are briefing journalists about variations of a security guarantee and a civilian nuclear program that would allow Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium. They have floated a defense accord that could be similar to arrangements the US has with South Korea or Japan, or by designating Saudi Arabia a major non-NATO ally.
The Biden administration regularly asserts that Saudi Arabia and Israel establishing diplomatic relations is “a declared national security interest of the United States.” But MBS’s track record of destructive military adventurism in Yemen, where MBS led a 2015 military operation that expanded into a vicious yearslong war with a massive humanitarian toll, would make security pacts significantly risky for the US. And political observers question whether the Senate would sign off on such a treaty with Saudi Arabia, which already benefits from the robust US military presence in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, nuclear experts are flummoxed, pointing to the significant risks of giving MBS nuclear technology.
I reached out to the White House because I wanted to ask Brett McGurk, Biden’s Middle East coordinator, how such an agreement would square with the president’s initial pledge to put human rights at the center of the administration’s foreign policy. My requests were not returned.
“The question of values and human rights is at the table when we are having discussions about our national security interest in this region,” McGurk said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last year. “That alone is unique, and that is how American diplomats wear our values on our sleeve. Does that mean that human rights and values overtake every other issue? No, but it’s a part of the conversation.”
A more complete answer might be that great power competition — that is, the Biden administration’s focus on countering China as an organizing principle of its worldview — means that human rights are not a top priority. The Biden administration does not see itself having the luxury of holding a country like Saudi Arabia to account when it wants the oil-rich country, and broader region, aligned with the US economically and politically.
Trump may bear responsibility for shrugging off Khashoggi’s killing in 2018, but Biden’s administration hasn’t done much to hold MBS to account.
When Biden’s closest advisers visit Saudi Arabia, human rights don’t always figure into the White House’s news releases. And those statements matter; they are markers for activists, and set the tone for how we talk about the country.
And the impunity for the killing of Khashoggi, a US resident and Washington Post columnist, can now be felt worldwide: as India reportedly assassinated activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil, as Egypt targets dissidents abroad, and as Israel has not faced sanctions for the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
But the situation in Saudi Arabia and for Saudis abroad facing translational oppression goes far beyond Khashoggi. “The lack of accountability has just generated worse scenarios for Saudis,” Hala Aldosari, a human rights activist living in exile in the United States, told me. “We are seeing life sentences and death sentences for people expressing opinions.”
There have been 100 executions this year so far. “This is something that has been very rare but now is happening on a massive scale inside Saudi Arabia which is very disheartening. It tells you how one act goes unpunished and unaccounted for could escalate very severely and could impact thousands of lives,” Aldosari explained.
It makes it all the more stark that the Biden administration still doesn’t have a political appointee in place for the important role of assistant secretary of state for democracy, rights, and labor, but has appointed former Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro as point-person on Israel-Arab normalization.
How Saudi Arabia shapes the stories we tell
MBS sent the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, to the United Nations annual summit two weeks ago. In his speech to the general assembly, he emphasized the importance of human rights, and in private conversations with prominent policy thinkers across New York, he was very much in listening mode.
Instead of the UN lectern, the crown prince chose Fox News to convey his message; the medium suggested he wanted to reach Americans, not the world — and, in particular, Republicans. The setting was Sindalah, a Red Sea island that Saudi Arabia hopes will become a tourist destination.
MBS immediately deflected when asked about the Khashoggi killing. He said his country had pursued an investigation like the US did after the failures of its Iraq invasion, and that the country’s security services had been reformed.
In the friendly conversation with anchor Brett Baier, the crown prince presented himself as a reformer fighting against the traditionalist Saudi system. “It was a mistake, it was painful, and we are trying our best to make sure we reform our system to work by the book,” the crown prince said of Khashoggi’s death. But the Fox News follow-up questions didn’t reckon with the fact that it was US intelligence agencies that had determined with a high degree of certainty that MBS himself had ordered the assassination.
And while not everyone is giving MBS that kind of platform, other American institutions are engaging with Saudi Arabia. For a short while after Khashoggi’s murder, US institutions avoided the public shame associated with the acceptance of Saudi money, but those days are gone. The MBS information campaign for rehabilitation post-Khashoggi extends to influential think tanks that depend on Gulf funding, though researchers and experts testifying to Congress sometimes don’t disclose it. Former US military leaders earn lucrative contracts from the kingdom. Even media organizations benefit, which may explain why Vice buried a critical documentary on Saudi Arabia. (The money is so ubiquitous that even Vox is touched by it. Penske Media Corporation received in 2018 a $200 million investment from the Saudi Research and Media Group, which is closely linked to MBS. Penske became a minority shareholder in Vox Media, this site’s parent company, earlier this year.)
The Fox interview is a prime example of how adept Saudi Arabia has been at shaping conversations in Washington five years after Khashoggi’s death.
MBS knows his audience and what he can get away with.