- Sarah Leah Whitsonexecutive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now.
President Biden met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Friday, as the Saudis agreed to increase oil production as well as open their airspace to Israeli commercial flights. Biden says he told the crown prince he held him responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a U.S. resident, though Biden’s claims were later contradicted by a top Saudi official. We speak with Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, who says Biden’s friendly fist bump with the crown prince will become the “legacy of President Biden as a man who broke his promises” on holding Saudi Arabia accountable and sends a troubling message to other wealthy oil-producing countries. Whitson also calls for the UAE to give civil rights lawyer Asim Ghafoor, who represented Khashoggi, “due process” after he was detained by officials while traveling through Dubai’s airport and sentenced to three years in prison for fraud charges he denies.
AMY GOODMAN: President Biden has returned to the U.S. after his trip to the Middle East, where he met Friday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The two men greeted each other with a fist bump. The meeting comes three years after Biden vowed as a presidential candidate to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the state-sponsored killing of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. The publisher of The Washington Post, Fred Ryan, criticized Biden, saying, quote, “The fist bump between President Biden and Mohammed bin Salman was worse than a handshake — it was shameful. It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking,” unquote. During a news conference after their meeting, Biden said he told Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that he held him responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: With respect to the murder of Khashoggi, I raised it at the top of the meeting, making it clear what I thought of it at the time and what I think of it now. And it was exactly — I was straightforward and direct in discussing it. I made my view crystal clear.
AMY GOODMAN: A top Saudi official later appeared to contradict Biden, saying he never heard the president telling the crown prince that he was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
During Biden’s visit, Saudi Arabia agreed to increase oil production and to open its airspace to Israeli commercial flights. The U.S. agreed to remove troops from Tiran, a strategically located island in the Red Sea, in a move that will help pave the way for Saudi Arabia to take control of the island.
While in Saudi Arabia, Biden also met with other leaders from the region, including the president of the United Arab Emirates. The meeting came on the same day a court in the UAE sentenced the civil rights attorney Asim Ghafoor to three years in prison. He’s a U.S. citizen who worked as a lawyer for Jamal Khashoggi. He was arrested Thursday during a stopover flight in Dubai. He had been heading on to a wedding in Turkey. He’s been accused by the government of alleged tax evasion and money laundering.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders said Sunday on ABC’s This Week Biden should not have gone to Saudi Arabia.
MARTHA RADDATZ: Should Biden have gone?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: No, I don’t think so. You have a leader of that country who was involved in the murder of a Washington Post journalist. I don’t think that that type of government should be rewarded with a visit by the president of the United States. … Look, you’ve got a family that is worth $100 billion, which crushes democracy, which treats women as third-class citizens, which murders and imprisons its opponents. And if this country believes in anything, we believe in human rights, we believe in democracy. And I just don’t believe that we should be maintaining a warm relationship with a dictatorship like that.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of DAWN. That’s Democracy for the Arab World Now, of which Asim Ghafoor, who was arrested by UAE, is a board member. Her recent article in The American Prospect is headlined “America’s Middle East 'Withdrawal' Breathes Its Last Breath.”
Sarah Leah, we just spoke to you last week ahead of Biden’s trip. Great to have you back. Can you respond now to what actually has taken place, the meeting of Jamal — of the man who U.S. intelligence has said was responsible for the murder of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: I mean, I would have to agree with The Washington Post. The fist bump, seen around the world, will live in infamy, will become the legacy of President Biden as a man who broke his promises, and broke them in such a disgraceful manner, bumping fists with the man he promised to the American people he would make a pariah. That is one hell of a way to be remembered.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your comment on this comment, when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was sitting in Jeddah with the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, who was in the room during President Biden’s meeting with the crown prince, about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
WOLF BLITZER: The U.S. intelligence community, as you know, concluded that the crown prince ordered —
ADEL AL-JUBEIR: I don’t —
WOLF BLITZER: — effectively ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
ADEL AL-JUBEIR: I don’t believe that that was specified in those terms, one. Number two, it was an assessment. Number three, we know what the intelligence community’s assessment was with regards to Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia investigated this crime. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia held those responsible for it accountable, and they are paying the price of the crime they committed as we speak. We investigated, we punished, and we put in place procedures to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. This is what countries do it situations like this. This is what the U.S. did when the mistake of Abu Ghraib was committed. This is what the U.S. does in other situations that involve combat operations or that involve any situation where somebody transgresses or makes a mistake.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir speaking on CNN. Your response, Sarah Leah Whitson?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I think Adel al-Jubeir’s credibility is absolutely zero. He is a lying liar who previously went on international media to claim that Saudi Arabia had not killed Jamal Khashoggi, that in fact he had left the embassy — rather, the consulate in Istanbul of his own accord. He represents the government that had someone dress up as Jamal Khashoggi to walk out of the consulate to pretend that Jamal left. So, I think that we can take anything that Adel al-Jubeir says with a boulder of salt, because he has a really tragic record of lying.
At the same time, I think that we have to understand that this is the price of nonaccountability. This is the price we pay when our president fist-bumps a murderer. We are giving them license to say, “Oh, well, ho-hum, really can’t be that bad if your president is fist-bumping with a murderer.” President Biden has put us in an impossible position.
But to tell the American people that he told him that he believed he was responsible, but proceeded to fist-bump with him and have a chummy relationship with him, what is the message that sends? The message that sends is that if you are a wealthy, oil-producing country, the United States will look away and fist-bump with you if you have something to offer, if you think that we have — that you have something to offer, like billions of dollars of weapons purchasers. It is really something that is going to harm America’s standing and reputation, harm America’s interests. And frankly, it just means that no one will take America seriously anymore when it talks about accountability. With what straight face can the United States be sanctioning Iranian leaders for sentencing — unjustly sentencing, for example, a wrestler to death, when in the same moment the United States is fist-bumping with a man who ordered the most brutal and heinous and shocking murder of a journalist who was working for the most published newspaper in our country, and treats it as, “Oh, well, all well and done now”?
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, before we go, I wanted to ask you about any updates on the sentencing of one of your board members at DAWN, the Democracy for the Arab World Now, in the United Arab Emirates, Asim Ghafoor, when he was making his way through the airport to fly on to Turkey?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, we are shocked and completely surprised by this. We understand, because of what we’ve been told, that there has been an in absentia conviction against him. On the basis of what evidence and what charges, we have absolutely no idea, because this has never been communicated to Asim Ghafoor, and certainly not something we ever know about. At a very basic minimum, Mr. Ghafoor is entitled to basic due process, something that the UAE has never shown any good record in. We are very concerned about his health and well-being, given the very well-documented record of torture, abuse, arbitrary arrest and detention in the UAE. And we are standing by to learn more information.
AMY GOODMAN: He was sentenced to three years in prison?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: I mean, this is what we have read in the UAE’s mouthpiece official statement, saying that a court in the UAE had convicted him in absentia to three years in prison and a fine of $800,000. We have no idea what the basis for this is. Mr. Ghafoor has stated that he had no notice, no information about this whatsoever. And obviously, had he had the slightest inkling that there was any sort of process ongoing in the UAE against him, he wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen to travel to the UAE as he just did a few days ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, we want to thank you for being with us, and we’ll continue to follow that story, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now. We’ll link to your piece in American Prospect headlined “America’s Middle East 'Withdrawal' Breathes Its Last Breath.”
Next up, well, in Jeddah, Biden met with another leader accused of severe human rights violations, the Egyptian president, as Egypt is set to host the next U.N. climate summit. We’ll speak with Bill McKibben, who just wrote a piece for The New Yorker, “If Egypt Won’t Free Alaa Abd El-Fattah, It Had Better Brace for an Angry Climate Conference.” And we’ll talk to Bill about Senator Manchin’s scuttling of the U.S. climate bill and the historic heat wave that’s raging through Europe. Stay with us.