During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state in light of the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and promised to make the regime “pay the price” for its human rights violations. Many saw this as a welcome change from America’s long-standing but morally questionable friendly relations with the Saudis.
But that promise vanished with Biden’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and his friendly fist-bump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Biden now claims that his intention was always to “reorient,” not rupture, the relationship with Saudi Arabia. He now sees the regime as an ally in solving America’s energy crisis, among other issues. I’ve previously criticized Biden’s overtures to Venezuela in pursuit of oil on the grounds that it’s contrary to America’s interests to court tyrannies. That applies just as much to Saudi Arabia.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, the president claimed that the goal of his visit was “to strengthen a strategic partnership going forward that’s based on mutual interests and responsibilities, while also holding true to fundamental American values.” But this is a fantasy: everything about the Saudi regime is hostile to fundamental American values.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute Islamic monarchy. The ultimate authority, even on judicial matters, is the king. Citizens have no rights or due process — the legal system is based on Sharia law, which empowers the state to control every aspect of people’s lives, including what they can think and say. In practice, this means that dissenters, like Khashoggi, can be brutally killed and dismembered for the “crime” of speaking out against the regime. According to American intelligence, Khashoggi’s assassination was ordered directly by bin Salman.
Just as there’s no freedom of speech, there is no freedom of thought: those who renounce Islam are subject to public decapitation. Dissent is punished by lashings, torture, wrongful imprisonment, kidnapping (see the case of Loujain al-Hathloul) and murder.
Women especially suffer under this authoritarianism: Under the Saudi “guardianship system” men exert total control over women’s lives. Rahaf Mohammed, a Saudi refugee who risked her life to escape, documents in her book “Rebel” the abuses she suffered. Beaten on numerous occasions by her own family, she was raped and tortured simply for trying to live a semblance of the kind of life we take for granted in the West.
This is the regime with which Biden wants to strengthen relations while “holding true to fundamental American values.” How does he imagine this is even remotely possible? America was founded on the principle of each individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How do you “hold true” to that principle while meeting on friendly terms with the leaders of a country that systematically violates every one of those rights?
In a press briefing following the visit, Biden said that when bin Salman claimed to him that “he was not personally responsible” for Khashoggi’s murder, he replied that “I indicated that I thought he was” — and that he viewed the Saudis’ methods of dealing with opposition and criticism as “a violation of human rights.” But that view didn’t stop Biden from sitting in talks with the crown prince. Is the question of whether your negotiating partner is, or is not, a thug who quashes dissent by brutal murder something you can just agree to disagree about?
Later in the press briefing, Biden said that he is “not going to remain silent” when it comes to “a clear violation of human rights.” But what does that lack of silence mean if it has no implications for how he acts towards the perpetrators? Is empty finger wagging what Biden means by “holding true to fundamental American values”?
By the very act of sitting at the table with the Saudis, President Biden has whitewashed the regime’s despotic nature and crimes. He has empowered the regime by giving it a moral sanction.
The significance of Biden’s action is captured by a remark by philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand was commenting on the collaboration at the U.N. between Western nations and communist countries, but her point is just as applicable to Biden’s visit with the Saudis: “the communist world has gained a moral sanction, a stamp of civilized respectability from the Western world — it has gained the West’s assistance in deceiving its victims—it has gained the status and prestige of an equal partner, thus establishing the notion that the difference between human rights and mass slaughter is merely a difference of political opinion.”
If Biden is serious about upholding American values, he must stop treating authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia as civilized nations.
Our current energy crisis was caused, in part, by our whitewashing of one dictatorial regime, Putin’s Russia. It’s no solution to endorse and embolden another despotic regime and become dependent on its oil supplies. Instead, a truly American response would be to liberate domestic oil producers so we can grow our own production capacity.
True commitment to American values demands upholding freedom not just in words but in action. What that means in this case is to condemn the Saudi regime for its horrific crimes and to stop courting them, and to free American oil producers to provide for America’s energy needs.
Agustina Vergara Cid is a junior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @agustinavcid