President Biden is set to meet with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Friday as part of a four-day visit to restore key relationships and build security cooperation in the Middle East. Human rights activists are outraged that the U.S. is willing to support a leader responsible for human rights violations including in the brutal war in Yemen, the state-sanctioned killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and more. One of Biden’s aims is to convince Saudi Arabia to increase oil production, an answer to pressures at home over skyrocketing gas prices from the Russian war in Ukraine. “If we’re willing to sacrifice for oil prices, there are much less heinous sacrifices to be making than to continue military support for the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
On Friday, President Biden will continue — he will be making his first trip to the Middle East of his administration as he heads to Saudi Arabia for talks with Saudi officials and to attend a summit of Gulf allies. He is the first U.S. president to fly directly from Israel to the Saudi port city of Jeddah, is expected ask Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to pump more oil. The trip comes despite Biden’s pledge during the presidential debate in 2019 to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the state-sponsored killing of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
ANDREA MITCHELL: President Trump has not punished senior Saudi leaders. Would you?
JOE BIDEN: Yes. And I said it at the time. Khashoggi was in fact murdered and dismembered, and, I believe, on the order of the crown prince. And I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.
AMY GOODMAN: That was then-presidential candidate Joe Biden speaking in a debate in 2019.
Before his trip, President Biden wrote an op-ed that appeared in the very paper where Jamal Khashoggi was a columnist, The Washington Post, titled “Why I’m Going to Saudi Arabia,” saying, quote, “In Saudi Arabia, we reversed the blank-check policy we inherited. I released the intelligence community’s report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, issued new sanctions, including on the Saudi Arabia’s Rapid Intervention Force involved in his killing, and issued 76 visa bans under a new rule barring entry into the United States for anyone found to be involved in harassing dissidents abroad. My administration has made clear that the United States will not tolerate extraterritorial threats and harassment against dissidents and activists by any government,” he wrote.
Last year, President Biden approved a $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, Biden signed off on the sale of $5 billion to weapons to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
For more, we’re joined by Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of DAWN. That’s Democracy for the Arab World Now, which is a co-plaintiff with Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, in a lawsuit against the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder. Sarah Leah Whitson’s recent piece in The American Prospect is headlined “America’s Middle East 'Withdrawal' Breathes Its Last Breath.”
Explain what you mean by “America’s Middle East withdrawal,” Sarah Leah Whitson.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, successive administrations have talked about their desire to pivot to Asia to address the threats from China and Russia, to end America’s entanglements in armed conflicts in the Middle East, going back, of course, to the Iraq War, but more recently the Yemen war. And I think the Biden administration genuinely believed that it could use the momentum of mass bipartisan popular revulsion at Saudi crimes to, in fact, end the deep, deep entanglement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, but also Egypt, where he promised to end blank checks, and build on that momentum to fulfill a national security priority, which is to disentangle ourselves from the abusive regimes of the Middle East.
That hasn’t happened. He has, in fact, reversed and gone full force, doubling down in an unprecedented way, in the wake of the war in Ukraine, to recommit and drastically expand America’s military support for the most abusive regimes in the Middle East, in particular Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you explain, Sarah Leah, what exactly is this imminent — reportedly imminent defense alliance that the U.S. is negotiating or discussing with Saudi Arabia, as well as with the UAE?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I wish I could tell you more, other than we know that this defense agreement is probably actually completed, if you believe the Israeli prime minister, who said that the agreement is already signed and being implemented, and has already been implemented, according to the Israeli prime minister — former Israeli prime minister now — to shield off attacks. The defense agreement, as far as we know, at minimum, includes unified air defenses, unified intelligence sharing, a unified reaction to aerial threats.
What it obligates the United States to do, what exactly the commitments are that President Biden is making to the autocracies and apartheid governments of the Middle East, we don’t know, because he hasn’t told us. And I believe that the reason the Biden administration is keeping this secret from the American people is the same reason he penned that op-ed in The Washington Post: It’s shameful. He knows it’s shameful. If it was something to be proud about, they would have been boasting about it to the rafters. He knows that it is a conciliatory, humiliating capitulation to the Gulf governments and to Israel in order to win them back, as reassuring them that the United States has their back no matter what.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sarah Leah, this is perhaps especially striking because, as you point out in your piece in Prospect magazine, the Saudis appear to have repeatedly spurned U.S. demands with respect to Russia following their invasion of Ukraine. Could you elaborate on that? And the United Arab Emirates has not been any more forthcoming.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I think, across the board, it’s not just in the Middle East. You have seen much of the world turn its back on the United States in terms of its demand for unquestioned support to fight against Russia. This does not coincide with their interests. And in the case of the Middle East, in the case of Saudi Arabia, in the case of UAE, two governments that depend entirely on U.S. military protection for their survival, they refused. The UAE refused to support a U.N. Security Council resolution to sanction Russia, and they only agreed to a toothless General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion after a great deal of pressure from the United States and some of its European allies. They, of course, are not parties to the sanctions on Russia. And just recently, we have had the head of state in the UAE travel to Russia. We know that they have continued to host numerous fleeing Russian oligarchs and to house their giant yachts, and that they have deep, deep property investments in Dubai. So, while these Gulf states demand that we support them in their conflicts, they have done not even the barest minimum to reciprocate and show support for the war against Russia.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what is your response to President Biden, clearly going to Saudi Arabia to lower prices at the gas pump? Tell us about the latest in the investigation into Khashoggi, and DAWN’s lawsuit, together with the Khashoggi — Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée, against the crown prince. Where does the Biden administration stand on this?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I guess, taking your first question first, in terms of Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia, I think it’s very important to emphasize that no one is demanding that the United States cut off relations with Saudi Arabia, quote-unquote, “rupture” relations with Saudi Arabia. What we are demanding, what many others are demanding, is that we normalize our abnormal relationship with Saudi Arabia, which entails unmatched political and military support in terms of arms sales alone. What we are demanding is that we distance ourselves from supporting militarily a psychopathic madman who has been responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in Yemen. This does not serve America’s interest. It does not serve America’s interest to prop up an unaccountable, unelected sociopathic murderer, who will be around for decades to come, once he gets the security agreement, in particular.
With respect to DAWN’s lawsuit with Hatice Cengiz against Mohammed bin Salman and his co-conspirators, the judge, just last week, asked the Biden administration to weigh in on whether or not they want to grant immunity to Mohammed bin Salman from our lawsuit, immunity that he should not be entitled to because he is not head of state. His father, King Salman, is the head of state. And so we are waiting to see whether the Biden administration will really go as far as not — the opposite of what Biden promised, not to hold Mohammed bin Salman accountable, but to make sure that he is immune from accountability in the one remaining lawsuit to hold him accountable for this murder. I think that would be shocking and unprecedented. U.S. courts have ruled in the past that crown princes are not entitled to sovereign immunity. If the Biden administration creates new law by asking the court to grant him immunity, that will be a really shocking stab in the back and, of course, a total break of President Biden’s own promises.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sarah Leah, you mentioned the question of arms sales in your piece. You also say, of course, that Saudi Arabia is the largest importer of U.S. weapons. You point out in the piece that both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have, quote, “deep and long-standing commercial and personal ties” to the defense industry. Could you elaborate on that?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Sure. I mean, Secretary Blinken, of course, has yet to disclose what is widely known to be arms industry clients during his prior commercial venture in an investment advisory firm that he managed and ran. And, of course, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sits on the board — or, until he became secretary, I believe — of Raytheon, I’m pretty sure, and of course has long-standing ties with the defense industry. We have to understand that the defense industry — 70% of the lobbyists in the defense industry are former defense, Pentagon and U.S. government officials. The ties to the highest levels of the government are very deep and very profound.
The entire incentive system of the U.S. government in terms of foreign policy is to continue arms sales, push arms sales as much as possible. When you couple that incentive structure of intense lobbying and intertwining and conflict of interest of our elected officials with the defense industry, coupled with the foreign government lobbying and the foreign government influence infiltration into our government — not least, of course, Israeli government lobbying and support of their lobbying partners here in the United States, but widely expanded Saudi government lobbying and infiltration, Emirati government lobbying and infiltration — you have a very, very strong incentive structure for any administration to always go back to more arms sales, more protection for dictators and apartheid governments, despite the America’s national interest.
I think this is very, very little about oil. First of all, the Biden administration has already told us that even if Saudi and UAE increase oil output, which, by the way, they’ve said they’ll do, it will have a negligible impact on oil prices in the United States. Second of all, if oil prices are such a priority for the Biden administration that they are willing to go and kiss and make up and resume support for the worst dictators in the world, why not remove sanctions on Venezuela and Iran? That would ease up oil prices potentially, as well. Why not ease up on sanctions on Russian oil? That’s not necessary in terms of this war. If we’re willing to sacrifice for oil prices, there are much less heinous sacrifices to be making than to continue military support for the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We only have a minute. Can you talk about the fact that family members of those detained on charges of dissent in Saudi Arabia are hoping that Biden will make efforts towards their release? What do expect will happen? And, of course, Saudi Arabia denies that there are any people imprisoned as political prisoners in the kingdom.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, we know that the Biden administration has asked what the human rights community would like Biden to do. And our organization has indeed asked President Biden to meet with families of activists who are detained, or recently released activists in Saudi Arabia, as a show support for civil society in the country. We doubt very much that he will do any of that in Saudi Arabia, nor do we have much faith that American demands for human rights reforms in Saudi Arabia, including the release of imprisoned scholars, academics, writers, journalists in the country, will be heard by Mohammed bin Salman.
We can expect Mohammed bin Salman to respond exactly as he did, reportedly, in meeting with Jake Sullivan, which is to tell him to shut up, you know, shut up because he doesn’t want to hear it. And he has already made clear demand that he does not want to be questioned ever again about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or, for example, where his body is hidden, what they have done with Jamal’s remains. And President Biden, just today, said, “Well, I’m not going to bring up Jamal Khashoggi, because I’ve already said what I have to say on that.” A beautiful, inartful dodge. And so, that is, I think, very indicative of the fact that President Biden will do very little to help imprisoned Saudi activists, some of whom are facing the death penalty because they criticized the prince.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, I want to thank you for being with us, the executive director of DAWN, Democracy for the Arab World Now. We’ll link to your piece in The American Prospect headlined “America’s Middle East 'Withdrawal' Breathes Its Last Breath.”
Next up, “Is BA.5 the 'reinfection wave'?” We’ll speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Ed Yong of The Atlantic, in 30 seconds.
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