While President Joe Biden defended his plans to visit Saudi Arabia, a country he had once vowed to make an international “pariah,” Saudis who have fought to reform the absolute monarchy called the trip a betrayal that could have devastating consequences. to have.

“We feel betrayed,” Abdullah Alaoudh, a US-based leader of the National Assembly Party, an opposition group, told NBC News in a telephone interview on Monday. “We were promised to be protected from MBS,” he said, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

With Biden expected to meet with the crown prince, Alaoudh said he feared the president’s visit would encourage Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader to be “ruthless and rogue”. Bin Salman has cracked down on reformers and women’s rights activists, and the CIA may have ordered the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Bin Salman has said he takes full responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder but has denied any involvement in the murder of the journalist – an outspoken critic of the crown prince.

Regional power broker Saudi Arabia, one of the largest oil producers in the world and home to Islam’s two holiest sites, has been a vital US ally. And before Khashoggi’s assassination in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the crown prince had made an effort to economically and socially modernize the highly conservative kingdom. Reforms have allowed women to drive and cinemas have opened for the first time in 35 years.

Jamal Khashoggi, a long-time regime insider in Saudi Arabia, became disillusioned with Mohammed bin Salman.Mohammed Al-Shaikh / AFP – Getty Images

He has also embarked on an ambitious international campaign to rename the kingdom, courting politicians, business leaders, sports tournaments and players, social media influencers and journalists from around the world.

The Crown Prince’s attempt to present himself as a reformer was really shattered with the October 2018 murder and mutilation of Khashoggi, but even before the assassination, Saudi Arabia carried out public beheadings and imprisoned activists. And thousands of civilians have died in the war in neighboring Yemen, where Saudi Arabia-led forces are fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

“I don’t have much hope that the US will help us with human rights.”

Ali Adubisi said:

Given the tarnished reputation of the crown prince in the wake of Khashoggi’s death, the royal family now most wants from the United States “recognition and legitimacy,” said Alaoudh, who is also the Gulf director of Democracy for the Arab World Now. , or Dawn, a non-profit organization founded by Khashoggi that promotes human rights in the Middle East.

And Biden’s journey could effectively help the powerful crown prince “get away with murder,” he said.

Oil crisis

In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post Titled “Why I’m Going to Saudi Arabia,” Biden defended the planned visit, even though he acknowledged that “there are many who disagree with my decision” to travel to the kingdom.

“A more secure and integrated Middle East benefits Americans in many ways,” he wrote. “The waterways are vital to global trade and the supply chains we rely on. Its energy resources are vital to mitigate the impact of the Russian war in Ukraine on global supplies.”

The US is one of many Western countries that want Gulf states to increase oil production, something they hope will alleviate the politically damaging energy crisis and weaken Russia’s stronghold in that market.

Saudi Arabia is key to these efforts, although Biden has previously said he will not specifically ask the country to increase production during this trip.

Loujain al-Hathloul, a women's rights activist still under a travel ban after being imprisoned, pictured after her release in February 2021.
Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist still under a travel ban after being imprisoned, pictured after her release in February 2021. Lina Alhathloul / Twitter

In his opinion piece, Biden said Saudi Arabia “has helped restore unity among the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, fully supported the ceasefire in Yemen, and is now working with my experts to help stabilize oil markets.”

“My goal was to refocus – but not break – relations with a country that has been a strategic partner for 80 years,” he said.

But while oil will undoubtedly be a major focus of the trip, Biden said: “My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as on this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank.”

Alaoudh said he hoped that was true. However, he said he feared Biden’s trip would undo any progress made in pressuring Saudi Arabia to implement reforms.

He also noted that the president’s opinion took a very different tone from Biden’s comments in the run-up to the 2020 election, when he vowed to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state in the wake of the election. murder of Khashoggi.

‘A big win for MBS’

Lina al-Hathloul, whose sister — women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul — is still under a travel ban after she was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia before being released last year, said his visit would come as a major victory, regardless of Biden’s intentions. be considered for the crown prince.

“It’s not about President Biden’s intention of going in there and meeting MBS,” she said during a speech. press conference On Monday, he called on Biden to push for the release of political prisoners during his visit to the kingdom. “It’s about what the consequences will be if he goes there and (is) in the same room as MBS – what the regime will make of that visit. It will be seen as a big win for MBS.”

The family of Loujain al-Hathloul and others had hoped for more support from Biden, who publicly confirmed and welcomed the news of her release from prison in February 2021.

The prominent activist was arrested along with several other female activists in May 2018, after she made a name for herself as one of the few women to openly call for women’s right to drive. She also called for an end to Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male guardianship system, which has long restricted women’s freedom of movement.

Ali Adubisi, director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, also said Biden’s visit “would send a message to MBS that whatever he does in Saudi Arabia and abroad, in places like Yemen, he will not be isolated.” . or under pressure from the international community.”

“This visit is for the interests of Biden and his administration, for their political goals in Saudi Arabia and the region in general,” he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

“I don’t have much hope that the US will help us with human rights,” Adubisi said, however. “Because it has historically been responsible for strengthening the Saudi government since it was established, sending weapons and protecting them in difficult situations.”

“The US will help Saudi Arabia in any situation, which is why Saudi Arabia doesn’t care about human rights because it knows the US will protect it,” he said.

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