U.S. President Joe Biden was urged Thursday not to meet with Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman without securing “tangible progress to alleviate some of the most egregious rights violations” committed by the kingdom.
Failure to do so, 13 human rights organizations wrote in a joint letter to the U.S. president, could “embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.”
“Biden should recognize that any meeting with a foreign official provides them instant credibility on a global stage.”
The Biden administration has referred to Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally and key recipient of U.S.-made weapons, in varying terms. Biden previously vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over its role in the brutal murder of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Early on in his presidency, Biden declassified a U.S. intelligence report finding the murder was ordered by bin Salman, often called MBS. The administration has also vowed to put “human rights at the center of foreign policy.”
Yet more recently, in the wake of a spree of executions and a worsening crackdown on dissent within the kingdom, the White House positively recognized Saudi Arabia for boosting oil output and MBS for his role in extending a cease-fire in Yemen.
Defending the possible trip, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that it “would be in the context of significant deliverables for the American people and the Middle East region.” She said that “there’s no question that important interests are interwoven with Saudi Arabia” and added that the administration is “determined to preserving” the decadeslong relationship between the allies.
But the letter, from groups including Human Rights Watch, PEN America, and Democracy for the Arab World Now, stresses that Biden risks further bolstering “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.”
Beyond there being “no progress toward accountability” for Khashoggi’s murder, MBS’s government is leading a regime that “continues to arbitrarily imprison, torture, and execute numerous individuals in violation of the internationally protected rights,” the letter states. Scholar Salman Alodah, for example, “has been in solitary confinement for nearly five years,” the letter states, and faces charges “connected to his public support for imprisoned dissidents.”
Also troubling is that “U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents Walid Fitaihi, Badr al-Ibrahim, Aziza al-Yousuf, and Salah al-Haidar remain under unlawful travel bans, unable to reunite with their families in the United States,” the letter states. “Saudi Arabia also engages in state hostage-taking to silence dissidents; Omar and Sara al-Jabri, the children of former intelligence chief Saad al-Jabri, have spent more than two years unjustly detained and are still in prison despite being only 17 and 18 years old at the time of their arrests.”
Supposedly progressive reforms are also not worthy of praise, according to the letter, which notes that one “actually codifies into law existing forms of discrimination, including male guardianship over women.”
“Furthermore,” the letter continues, “imprisonment and travel bans, including on women’s rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul and Nassima al-Sadah, have had a chilling effect on activism and civil society, making promoting or monitoring human rights impossible.”
To address such concerns, the letter details a suite of actions Biden should have as a prerequisite to a meeting with MBS. They are:
- The immediate release of all political prisoners named in the 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Saudi Arabia;
- Lifting arbitrary travel bans that have been placed on human rights defenders and others, including those levied against U.S. citizens;
- An end to unlawful surveillance and state hostage-taking, and a release of all those detained for these reasons;
- An end to male guardianship over women, and the removal of all discriminatory laws and policies, ensuring that women’s rights activists are able to comment on and monitor reforms;
- A moratorium on executions; and
- A commitment to maintain the cease-fire in Yemen.
According to Lama Fakih, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, “President Biden should recognize that any meeting with a foreign official provides them instant credibility on a global stage, whether intended or not.”
“Meeting Mohammed bin Salman without human rights commitments,” said Fakih, “would vindicate Saudi leaders who believe there are no consequences for egregious rights violations.”
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