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Saudi trip captures competing demands of rights agenda, ‘great power’ contest

July 10, 2022 Updated Sun., July 10, 2022 at 4:41 p.m.

President Joe Biden speaks after signing an executive order on Protecting Access to Reproductive Health Services in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Friday, July 8, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
President Joe Biden speaks after signing an executive order on Protecting Access to Reproductive Health Services in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Friday, July 8, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS) (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Missy Ryan Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration faces an intensifying reckoning over its record on human rights as the emergence of a bellicose Russia and an increasingly powerful China places new, often discordant demands on President Joe Biden’s promise to place American ideals at the center of U.S. dealings with the world.

Biden’s talks with Middle Eastern leaders this week will offer a vivid demonstration of the competing considerations between that pledge and what officials describe as an existential ‘great power’ contest – most starkly in the president’s encounter with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the U.S. government blamed for the brutal 2018 killing of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.

The choreography of the meeting with Saudi King Salman and his royal retinue will be closely watched: Will Biden, who as a candidate vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, and the 36-year-old prince, now the kingdom’s de facto leader, speak one-on-one? Will they pose for a photo?

“It has to be said that having President Biden shake hands with Mohammed bin Salman on his trip to Saudi Arabia this month is going to be a pretty searing image, not just for Khashoggi’s family, but for human rights defenders in the region and everyone around the world,” said Michael Breen, president of Human Rights First.

The visit, however, is taking place against a backdrop of competition in the region with China.

Beijing has vowed to deepen ties with Saudi Arabia while the Gulf kingdom, amid a prolonged rift with the United States, has increased its arms purchases from China and explored denominating some of its massive oil sales to China in yuan, potentially threatening the preeminence of the dollar.

U.S. officials have also been disappointed in what they view as tepid Gulf support for the Western campaign to isolate Russia over Ukraine, including decisions by some countries to abstain from U.S.-backed measures at the United Nations.

In addition, soaring energy prices have cushioned Russian President Vladimir Putin from the effects of sanctions, and Saudi Arabia and other producers have been unwilling to do much to increase production.

Khashoggi has become one – probably secondary – item on the agenda, analysts say.

“In the case of Biden I fear that he is essentially saying ‘Let’s forget about Jamal Khashoggi; let’s forget about the repression of all domestic activists in Saudi Arabia; let’s forget about the bombing of Yemeni civilians for a slightly cheaper tank of gas,’” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “That sends a disastrous message.”

But a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said that Biden sees no tension between values like human rights and more hard-nosed American interests and argues they can in fact reinforce one another. “That changes the tenor of how you do diplomacy and of how you set priorities,” the official said.

Declaring the United States was “back,” Biden took office promising to restore global cooperation and place American ideals like the rule of law at the core of U.S. engagement with the world. Some of Biden’s top aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have deep experience with refugee and rights groups.

And advocates credit the Biden administration with taking steps to reverse some of President Donald Trump’s actions, restoring U.S. membership the United Nations Human Rights Council and providing new levels of support for the International Criminal Court in its effort to hold Russia accountable for possible war crimes following its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Biden has likewise rejected Trump’s embrace of autocrats including North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

But those advocates also say Biden’s actions have fallen far short of his rhetoric in other areas, arguing that high-level engagement with the leaders of India, Egypt and Cambodia conveys the appearance of condoning abuses in those countries. They warn that the urgency officials have embraced in building a global alliance to counter Moscow, as well as the administration’s growing focus on checking China’s rise, risks diluting that agenda even more.

Officials have billed the Middle East trip as a chance for Biden, who Republicans are blaming for high fuel prices ahead of November midterm elections, to discuss energy security with leading producers and deepen ties with nations key to deterring Iran. They say the visit also aims to help end the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling Iranian-backed Houthi rebels since 2015, causing widespread civilian suffering.

Before touching down in the coastal city of Jiddah for a meeting of regional leaders – where Biden is also expected to hold talks with Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who has presided over a period of intense repression in the Arab world’s most populous state – Biden will visit the West Bank and Israel, itself assailed by human rights groups for its treatment of Palestinians.

Ahead of the trip, Biden said that fundamental freedoms would be on his agenda, but stressed what the administration sees as geopolitical realities.

“We have to counter Russia’s aggression, put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China, and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world,” Biden wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece. “To do these things, we have to engage directly with countries that can impact those outcomes.”

While Saudi Arabia has relaxed some social and gender restrictions under the influence of the crown prince, it continues to jail activists and critics, punish family members of people accused of crimes, and withhold rights for minorities and women. The government is also accused of using surveillance technology to monitor and threaten critics and activists living abroad.

Leading Democratic lawmakers, referencing Putin’s reliance on high oil prices to help finance his invasion of Ukraine, last month complained in a letter to Biden that the oil-rich kingdom’s “refusal to stabilize global energy markets is helping bankroll Vladimir Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, while inflicting economic pain on everyday Americans.”

Saudi dissidents have called the visit a betrayal. Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, implored Biden to cancel the trip, which she said would embolden the prince. In a letter last month, more than a dozen rights groups appealed to Biden to condition any meeting with the crown prince on Saudi concessions including the release of jailed dissidents and activists and an end to politically motivated travel bans.

“Certainly these are things that the United States is in a position, at a minimum, to expect to see happen as a result of these conversations,” said Breen of Human Rights First.

The administration has defended its record, pointing to its declassification of the U.S. government assessment of Khashoggi’s killing, which was carried out by a team of Saudi agents at the country’s consulate in Istanbul. It also imposed sanctions and travel bans on a group of Saudis in relation to the killing – but not, notably, on the crown prince. The kingdom has convicted five men for the killing but denied any involvement by the prince.

U.S. officials say the visit is in line with their broader approach to human rights, arguing their engagement with leaders has scored real victories for the region’s people, despite Saudi Arabia’s dismal record on democracy and basic rights.

Without engaging the Saudis, they say, they would not have achieved progress toward ending the war in Yemen, a goal that would have massive implications for civilians in Yemen and in Saudi Arabia, which Houthi forces have pounded with missile attacks. Without engaging Egypt, they argue, it wouldn’t have been possible to broker an end to the 2021 Gaza conflict. They also point to the central roles that Qatar and the United Arab Emirates played in the evacuation of thousands of Afghans after last year’s Taliban takeover.

“Face to face diplomacy is critical with your friends, with your enemies, with all the countries in between,” the official said.

The administration frames the reduction of gas prices as a rights issue in the United States and beyond, citing inflation and the potential for recession and job losses.

While officials say Biden planned to make a Middle East trip even before the Ukraine conflict sparked an increase in global prices of food and fuel, they also acknowledge that the war, as a senior administration official put it, “has brought to the fore the importance of the Middle East, everything from shipping lanes to energy.”

“That is just the reality,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “So that factors into the conversations that we’re having with these countries.”

Rights groups say the changing calculus caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine is not unique to the United States. They point to the European Union’s recent gas deal with Egypt, designed to help the continent reduce its reliance on Russian energy, and say the bloc failed to respect rule of law conditions in providing funds to Poland and Hungary at a time when their support is crucial to pushing back against Moscow.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan, describing his philosophy last year, said that no administration could claim to make human rights the sole factor in its foreign policy. “No one would ever be able to sit up here and say with a straight face that we’re going to have a 100% scorecard on this, and I’m not going to claim that we could,” he said.

“On the one hand, you could say, ‘Well you haven’t sufficiently taken human rights into account.’ That is a perfectly debatable point,” Sullivan continued. “On the other hand, what you can’t say is that human rights were not a real live, legitimate factor at the decision-making table.”

In the same way, officials have said they want to recalibrate, not rupture, the relationship with Saudi Arabia. A long-deferred meeting with Saudi leaders could help put to rest a lengthy feud between the United States and Gulf countries, which officials have said was fueled in part by the crown prince’s feeling of being snubbed by Biden.

Roth argues that Biden’s Saudi talks, absent sufficient progress on human rights, have the perverse potential to weaken, rather than strengthen, America’s hand as it undertakes a long-term effort to contain China’s growing reach.

“If you look at the real threat over the next decade, it is China’s efforts to promote autocracy and undermine democracy, not necessarily militarily, but by promoting its system of governance as superior,” he said. “It loves to use as exhibit A in its case U.S. hypocrisy in adhering to democratic principles, which Biden is going to provide a perfect illustration of by embracing [the crown prince].”

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