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The United States is a beacon of democracy that doesn’t compromise when standing up for human rights around the world. We don’t side with oppressive governments.
Except when we do.
Two years ago, then-candidate Joe Biden said he would treat Saudi Arabia “like the pariah they are” because of that country’s human rights issues. These include its role in the war in Yemen and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is also a country where women still have rights repressed ( despite some progress) and being gay can be punishable by death.
In a few weeks, now-President Joe Biden is slated to travel to Saudi Arabia and meet with multiple world leaders, including the Saudi crown prince. It is quite the backtrack from Biden’s campaign rhetoric. And human rights advocates are rightly upset about the shift. A group of 13 organizations wrote Biden a joint letter expressing concerns about the upcoming visit and suggesting several preconditions that the Biden administration should secure before meeting with the crown prince
“Efforts to repair the U.S. relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia without a genuine commitment to prioritize human rights are not only a betrayal of your campaign promises, but will likely embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” the groups, including Human Rights Watch and the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, wrote in their letter. “We urge your administration to secure genuine progress on human rights before acting in a manner that would bolster the status of the crown prince and his government, which routinely and callously abuses the rights of its own citizens, as well as those of Americans and others around the world.”
The organizations suggested that Biden’s upcoming visit be conditioned on the Saudis taking several steps, including releasing political prisoners, lifting travel bans on human rights advocates, committing to maintaining the cease-fire in Yemen, an end to male guardianship over women and a moratorium on executions.
Now, we’re not so naive to believe that the U.S. can only have perfect partners on the world stage. If that were true, we’d have no friends at all — we really couldn’t even be friends with ourselves. So when you look at the full global chess board, particularly with the potential for the Saudis to drift toward stronger ties with authoritarian governments in Beijing and Moscow, it makes sense to continue what has been a decades-long, important strategic partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. That is the imperfect reality we live in.
But this acknowledgement doesn’t make the rhetorical pivot any more dispiriting from a human rights perspective. Just recently, the Biden administration was on its high horse about democracy and human rights when it excluded several Latin American governments from the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. If the U.S. is going to tout adherence to democratic principles in the Americas, the same should apply to other countries, like Saudi Arabia, even when we want them to produce more oil amid record gas prices.
The reality is certainly more complicated concerning our relationship with Saudi Arabia, with several factors and forces involved beyond U.S. gas prices. But the optics look like a president beleaguered by high gas prices and unpopularity at home traveling across the globe in search of help from an oil-rich nation, all while fumbling past human rights issues that were such a big deal on the campaign trail. And it is not a good look.