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News ID: 108287
Publish Date : 26 October 2022 - 21:40
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WASHINGTON (Dispatches) -- The U.S.-Saudi row over the Opec+ decision to cut oil production has laid bare a hole in the Biden administration’s commitment to a purported human rights-centered foreign policy, human rights advocates have said.
Following the Opec+ decision, the U.S. was quick in its condemnation and said it was willing to reevaluate its relationship with the country “right away”. White House National Security adviser Jake Sullivan said that this review would include arms sales, a major bilateral issue with Saudi Arabia because it obtains 70 percent of its arms from the U.S.
When Saudi Arabia responded by saying its decision was market-based and not political, White House national security council spokesman John Kirby accused the Saudis of trying to “spin or deflect” the facts.
Yet the Biden administration has only begun this re-evaluation after two years in office, despite the president making a promise on the campaign trail to reassess ties with the kingdom over its human rights violations. When that promise was made, rights advocates hoped that Biden’s time in office would lead to a change in the kingdom.
“Human rights has not received the attention and focus that it deserves and that this administration said it was placing. They’ve repeatedly said human rights will be at the centre of foreign policy and that just has not been true when it comes to Saudi Arabia,” Seth Binder, advocacy director at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Middle East Eye.
“In terms of great power competition, this very much seems to be the lens with which this administration is viewing much of its foreign policy, including in the Middle East and North Africa and with its relationship to Saudi Arabia.”
And now, even as the administration turns its sights to what it perceives to be a Saudi alignment with Russia, the kingdom continues to commit human rights abuses with little U.S. attention.
Saudi Arabia sentenced three tribesmen to death for resisting displacement after their tribe was forcibly removed to make way for the $500 billion Neom megacity. And Saudi American Saad Ibrahim Almadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison for his tweets. The State Department said it “consistently and intensively raised our concerns regarding the case” of Almadi.“Human rights was not a priority. I think it was campaign promises. It’s a good thing to say during campaigns. This is what people want to hear. And once they’re in office, what they see as more important to interests are prioritized, including oil and arms sales,” Lina al-Hathloul, prominent Saudi rights activist and sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, told MEE.
In March, the Saudi Press Agency announced that the government had executed 81 people in a single day, a stark contrast to Riyadh’s announcement in January.
The Biden administration did say in February 2021 that it would no longer support offensive “operations” in the Saudi-led war on Yemen, but lawmakers have raised concerns over whether that distinction actually stops weapons and support going to the Saudi military.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a sharp rise in the price of oil in global markets, prompting the U.S. president to travel to Saudi Arabia, where he met with and bumped fists with the Saudi crown prince in the coastal city of Jeddah.
No serious calls to look at the U.S.-Saudi relationship came from the Biden administration until the Opec+ decision in early October.
“It’s not an opinion, it’s just the reality. Unfortunately, the Biden administration didn’t use the leverage it had when it comes to pressuring Saudi,” said Hathloul.
The Biden administration’s approach to Saudi Arabia over the past two years has been quite different from its predecessor, the Donald Trump administration, but much of this had to do with rhetoric.
Trump was transparent in how he approached Riyadh and the Saudi crown prince. His first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia, breaking a longstanding tradition of U.S. presidents using their first foreign visit to meet one of their neighbors in Mexico or Canada.
The visit will be long remembered for the photo of Trump alongside Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi placing their hands on a glowing white orb.
Then, when Muhammad bin Salman visited the White House in 2018, he and Trump sat in the Oval Office and the U.S. president handed the crown prince a poster showing a graphic of U.S. arms sales to the kingdom - a clear sign of how Trump viewed the relationship.
“I know [senators] are talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they’re [Saudi Arabia] spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs,” Trump said in remarks to reporters on 11 October 2018, days after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States.”
Seth Binder, advocacy director at the Project on Middle East Democrac, noted that rhetoric does in certain areas “make a difference”. However, soon it was clear that the Biden administration really was similar to Trump, in that energy was a driving factor to the US-Saudi relationship.
“In essence, [the Saudis] called the administration’s bluff and the administration folded their cards,” Binder said.
“When it came to any tangible costs to the relationship, what you saw was an effort culminating in the Jeddah trip to repair ties and get back to the way things used to be under the Trump administration and under previous administrations.”
The outrage in Washington has led to several calls from lawmakers, including Senator Bob Menendez who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia

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