Biden visits Saudi Arabia despite his ‘dismal human rights record’

President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this month and his fist bump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman drew criticism due to the country’s litany of human rights abuses. However, a North Eastern University professor said the Commander-in-Chief’s visit did not indicate he was resigned to a completely friendly relationship with the Middle Eastern nation.

As Northeast Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. Julie Garey explains, the United States is constantly reassessing its relationship with many countries, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), with which it maintains an alliance. for a long time, is no exception.

The director of the Northeast Security and Resilience Studies program does not see Biden’s visit to the country as a sign that the Democratic president’s administration “has resigned itself to maintaining a close and friendly relationship with the kingdom, or, on the other hand, destructive contradictory relations”.

Portraits of Dr. Julie Garey, Assistant Professor of North East Political Science Education, and Max Abrahms, North East Political Science Professor. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“President Biden, in his own words, has a long list of issues he hopes to make progress on, but I don’t take that to mean that he has suddenly reversed course believing there are many challenges in Saudi Arabia and challenges between the two countries,” says Garey.

Those who opposed Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia did so out of concern for several issues, including the country’s “dismal human rights record”, according to Garey, who specializes in international relations, the U.S. foreign policy and national security, and international organizations. Critics of the president’s trip have pointed to the kingdom’s leading role in the war in Yemen, which has led to widespread starvation, suffering and death, its history of harboring terrorist organizations and concern over China’s growing influence in the region, the professor said.

The gruesome killing of Saudi American journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 is another major reason people criticized Biden’s visit to the country, as the CIA concluded four years ago that the crown prince ordered the assassination, despite his claims to the contrary.

In a statement last week, the White House said Biden raised Khashoggi’s killing during a meeting with the crown prince and received commitments from the country “regarding reforms and institutional safeguards in place to guard against such conduct in the future”. Biden also said the crown prince told him that “he was not personally responsible” for killing Khashoggi. The president told reporters he pushed back against that claim.

Asked if the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia undermines the United States’ credibility on the world stage, Garey said that for some countries and foreign leaders, the alliance is viewed poorly.

“This is especially true of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors who have contentious relations with the kingdom,” she notes. “Although many other democratic countries also have relations with Saudi Arabia, they also probably find it paradoxical and sometimes hypocritical that the Biden administration, which considers itself a champion of human rights and democratic values, travel to Saudi Arabia and engage in talks with the Crown Prince.

Northeastern political science professor Max Abrahms, an expert in international security, particularly in the areas of terrorism, counterterrorism and US foreign policy, points out that the “unsavory” geopolitical record of the Saudi Arabia is no secret and has been well known for quite a long time. sometimes.

“Saudi Arabia is what Saudi Arabia is: it’s an illiberal country, and everyone knows it,” he said. “Far beyond the murder of [Jamal Khashoggi], Saudi Arabia is quite tyrannical with dissidents in its own country. Saudi Arabia has often used indiscriminate violence against Yemen, contributing to arguably the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe. Frankly, Saudi Arabia was involved in the September 11 attacks.

Abrahms notes that there has always been a disconnect between the stated ideals of the United States and its conduct in the world, and Saudi Arabia is no exception. Beyond the kingdom, the United States has allied itself with illiberal regimes throughout history.

“At least that has certainly been true in modern American history since becoming a truly global player in the 20th century,” says Abrahms.

On this disconnect, Abrahms explains that there are two main schools of thought in the field of international relations on how countries should conduct themselves: liberalism stresses that nations should act morally and only align themselves with nations that act morally, while realism asserts that countries should act in their best interests, even if it means aligning themselves with illiberal countries.

Liberal school of thought criticizes US alliance with Saudi Arabia, while realists point to kingdom as ‘indispensable’ partner in counterbalancing Iran, a threatening US adversary nuclear potential, according to Abrahms.

Moreover, because gas prices soared after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in the eyes of realists, there is a “national security imperative” for the United States to seek more energy. affordable in Saudi Arabia, even if it’s not green, says Abrahms. .

“Despite American interests in going green, the reality is that our economy is still running on oil, and the Saudis export a lot of it, and the American economy is not doing well right now. Inflation is very high and the energy prices are exploding,” he explains. “So it makes perfect sense that the president is trying to do everything on the world stage to make the economic life of Americans easier.”

According to Garey, another alleged reason for the US’ close relationship with Saudi Arabia is its concern for the stability of the Middle East region and its many states.

“I think the United States, at least for the foreseeable future, will always see itself as having interests in the Middle East. I think he will also continue to seek multiple avenues to protect, maintain and advance those interests,” Garey said.

“A U.S.-Saudi relationship may be an asset in the toolbox of U.S. policymakers, but diplomats and policymakers don’t believe it’s the only asset, nor do they believe an asset either perfect or will always be beneficial. The most important thing is that the United States takes as thoughtful and deliberate an approach as possible for each state, ”she adds.

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