Reviews | In the Middle East, Biden’s policy clashes with American principles
Mr Biden’s face-to-face meeting with MBS – preceded by a cordial and misguided televised fist bump – gave the crown prince much-coveted legitimacy. During a visit intended to secure increased Saudi oil supplies, this moment crystallized the damaging appearance of the trade in American principles of human rights – in fact the legitimate aspirations of the Saudi people for a greater great freedom – to help solve the president’s domestic political problems caused by expensive gasoline.
We have long argued that doing business with Arab dictators is counterproductive, even though Mr. Biden is not the first president to try. The test of such diplomacy must be what the United States earns in return and how much truth about human rights it speaks in the process. In that sense, Mr. Biden deserves some credit for holding a press conference in Saudi Arabia during which he called Khashoggi’s murder “outrageous” and noted that he had told MBS that he would. held “probably” responsible. (MBS, for his part, admitted no wrongdoing, according to Mr. Biden. Saudi officials later publicly disputed Mr. Biden’s version of the conversation.)
For the most part, however, Mr. Biden gave more than he got. He made no broader criticism of Saudi Arabia’s repressive policies in public; there has been no release of political prisoners or clemency for other opponents of the regime – including dual US citizens – who have been denied freedom of travel. Instead, Mr. Biden touted an already existing truce in Yemen and modest steps toward better relations with Israel. He appeared to invite deeper US-Saudi ties by announcing a new project to test US 5G technology in the kingdom.
And when it was all over, MBS had made no public commitment to pump more oil. The Saudis are being counted on to influence an OPEC cartel meeting next month to put a few hundred thousand more barrels on the market, likely with a modest impact on US gas prices.
Mr Biden also met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a dictator who has imprisoned thousands of political opponents. After that photo op, the White House released a statement backing Egypt’s funding requests from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — and promising only “constructive dialogue on human rights.”
A presidency that began with bold rhetoric about a new approach to the Arab world centered on human rights has reverted to a policy no less lenient toward dictators than those of previous administrations, including that of President Donald Trump. It was a low moment for Mr. Biden, and a moment he will not experience anytime soon.