Human rights, oil and Biden’s shifting approach to Saudi Arabia

·6-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia — a country he once pledged to make a “pariah” — as part of a multi-country trip to the Middle East next month, the White House announced Tuesday.

Biden is expected to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely viewed as the country’s de facto leader, even though power is formally in the hands of his elderly father. The president’s willingness to meet the crown prince, colloquially known as MBS, is a sharp departure from the diplomatic cold shoulder he has given him since the start of his presidency.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have maintained a strong relationship for roughly 80 years built on mutual interest — with the Saudis providing a steady flow of gas from their massive oil fields in exchange for military protection and weapons from the U.S. The long-standing alliance has survived, in part, because of the willingness of American leaders to tolerate some of the abuses of the Saudi regime — including its oppression of women, LGBTQ people and minorities.

Biden has pushed back on Saudi rulers in a way that his predecessor, Donald Trump, never did. Early in his presidency, the Biden administration released an intelligence report that claimed the crown prince was directly involved with the plot to assassinate Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who wrote for the Washington Post and was brutally murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The State Department also issued sanctions on 76 Saudi nationals in response to the report. Biden also pledged to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s extended war against Iran-backed groups in Yemen, which has caused what the United Nations has called “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.”

Why there’s debate

Biden’s decision to travel to Saudi Arabia has sparked debate over how American leaders should balance U.S. economic and security interests bound up with Saudi influence and the American mission to promote human rights around the world.

The president has faced intense criticism from human rights groups, Saudi dissidents and even Khashoggi's fiancée, who have accused him of betraying his principles in the hope of coaxing the Saudis to release more oil and lower gas prices in the U.S. There have also been more measured critiques from within his own party, with Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., arguing that Biden should be putting his efforts toward weaning the United States from fossil fuels, “so we don't have despots and murderers calling the shots.”

Some regional experts also have doubts about what Biden can gain in exchange for softening his opposition to Saudi abuses. They argue that it’s unlikely Saudi Arabia and the other oil-producing nations it influences will ramp up oil production enough to make any real difference on prices at the pump in the U.S. Some argue that a massive increase in domestic oil production in recent decades means that the U.S. no longer needs to placate the Saudis in the way it did in the past.

But others take a pragmatic view, arguing that — however distasteful it may be — the U.S. has far too much on the line to allow its relationship with the Saudis to deteriorate. They say a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia can help serve as a bulwark against Iran, promote better relations between Gulf states and Israel, prevent China from dominating the Middle East and help punish Russia economically for its invasion of Ukraine. Some also make the case that the U.S. will be in a better position to pressure the Saudis to curb their human rights abuses in the context of a friendly relationship, rather than an adversarial one.


Supporters of Biden's trip

Like it or not, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia still need each other

“With oil already at $100 a barrel, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have reason to do everything possible to prevent the disruption of Saudi supply. That means the two nations must return to the security-for-oil relationship that began nearly eight decades ago. … That relationship lasted, despite ups and downs, through 14 U.S. presidencies until Mr. Biden.” — Karen Elliott House, Wall Street Journal

A strong partnership can help the U.S. pressure Saudi Arabia on human rights

“To brand a country a pariah is to marginalize it and nullify an entire relationship. Common-sense discussions on common interests would no longer occur. Opportunities for dialogue would be washed away in a sea of antagonism.” — Daniel R. DePetris, Newsweek

Biden is right to try to salvage a relationship he nearly spoiled

“Biden’s attempt to isolate the prince has been a miserable failure. … If Biden is now beating a path to the kingdom, it is because he desperately needs Saudi Arabia to increase its crude oil output to tame prices that have soared since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” — Bobby Ghosh, Bloomberg

Protecting American interests often requires unpleasant partnerships

“There's no sugarcoating it. Sometimes presidents must do things they find distasteful or that appear hypocritical to advance what they perceive to be the national interest — that is what Biden is doing here.” — Stephen Collinson, CNN

Spurning the Saudis would be a huge gift to Russia and China

“Biden ignored and denigrated them and pushed them right into the embrace of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. You can’t blame countries in the region for looking out for their interests, and if Washington won’t be there for them, then they will need to look elsewhere.” — Matthew Kroenig, Foreign Policy

Critics of Biden's trip

The U.S. is surrendering its authority on human rights

“At a time when the Biden administration is fighting to defend democracy in Ukraine, it's an embarrassment to be reconciling with the leader of a country who represses his own citizens.” — Aaron David Miller, CNN

Biden is making a major concession while gaining very little

“The problem is not just that a presidential visit to Riyadh would so obviously illustrate a compromise on principles. It is also that Biden probably will not gain anything meaningful in return. … If he follows through on his plans to visit Riyadh, Biden will be making a bad deal: exchanging near-certain reputational damage for the mere possibility of modest triumphs. It is a visit that should never have been planned.” — Dalia Dassa Kaye, Foreign Affairs

Biden is essentially letting MBS get away with murder

“In terms of any meaningful accountability from MBS on Khashoggi’s death or other important human rights issues, Biden is likely to come away empty-handed. … This lack of accountability is a lasting tragedy. In simple terms, MBS got away with it.” — David Ignatius, Washington Post

The right move would be to ensure the U.S. doesn't need Saudi oil at all

“Instead of getting on a plane to Saudi Arabia, the president would do better by the country if he stayed home and worked on delivering a domestic energy policy that maximized all of our resources and generated a more powerful American future.” — Editorial, Dallas Morning News

Biden is conceding far too much leverage to a much less powerful country

“Rather than rebuilding relations with Riyadh, Biden's approach will likely exacerbate the long-standing problems in US-Saudi relations. It will increase our dependence on the kingdom, which has long given its rulers carte blanche to act against American interests in the Middle East and beyond. MBS is playing hardball with the United States — and Biden just let him win.” — Trita Parsi, Common Dreams

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images, Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images