Ever since assuming de-facto power several years ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, has built a ruthless repression machine by recruiting loyal operatives cementing his control of the security forces, distorting religious doctrine and criminalizing dissent. But despite the immense power he consolidated, MBS’ power play lacked a crucial component – international legitimacy – particularly after he was ostracized by the West for ordering the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Tragically, President Joe Biden, who once pledged to hold the crown prince accountable and make his regime a “pariah,” has gifted MBS the legitimacy he craves and validated his transnational repression strategy. Biden’s fist bump with MBS during his recent visit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was a stomach-churning display of how the U.S. administration has sacrificed its values-based foreign policy rhetoric to a false idea of realism – without any real wins.
It’s not too late, though, for Biden to change course in a way that lives up to American values while gaining ground for U.S. interests.
If there was one true winner coming out of this Biden visit, it was MBS. The Saudi Press Agency immediately disseminated choreographed photos of the two leaders side by side, marking an end to MBS’ isolation and completing his rehabilitation project.
But beyond giving a major reputational boost to MBS, Biden has rendered him more dangerous than ever. Right after Biden’s visit, one of Saudi Arabia’s top diplomats, pressed by the BBC over the Kingdom’s targeting of detractors, affirmed MBS’s repression doctrine: “What you may call a dissident, we call a terrorist.”
Of course, this was the same pretext used to go after Khashoggi. Last year, by distorting a religious text, MBS inferred that dissent is an act of extremism that warrants murder, and three weeks before Khashoggi’s assassination, a senior state-sponsored cleric issued a fatwa authorizing the killing of dissidents who disobey political leaders.
While MBS apologists have portrayed him as a religious reformer, his misappropriation of religion to justify assassinations exposes him as an extremist.
By once again declaring that peaceful dissent is tantamount to terrorism, the Saudis have undermined their own spin that Khashoggi’s assassination was a one-off mistake rather than a symptom of systematic repression. Clearly, then, Biden’s confrontation of MBS over his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder – an account repeatedly and disingenuously disputed by the Saudis – failed to shift the Saudis’ calculus. If anything, the president’s visit taught MBS, who recently spoke about a 1,000-person hit list and professional assassins, that he can get away with future murders, too.
Since his time as President Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden has witnessed the evolution of MBS’s repression, which began long before Khashoggi’s murder. In 2015, my father, Saad Aljabri, a former top Saudi intelligence official, refused MBS’s request to deploy Saudi counterterrorism agents to abduct and forcefully return a dissenting Saudi royal from Europe. MBS then fired my father and formed his own private unit, known as the Tiger Team, to execute the mission in Europe and target other foes through renditions, kidnapping, torture and assassinations. Three years later, Canadian authorities stopped members of the same squad from entering the country to harm my father.
As president, Biden declassified a CIA report that concluded MBS’s culpability in the Khashoggi assassination and sanctioned the hit team, but refrained from imposing direct sanctions on him. Because the crown prince has faced no real consequences for his reckless actions, MBS hasn’t stopped targeting detractors.
Just last month, a Saudi royal court operative who bullied U.S.-based Saudi dissidents, was arrested and charged with lying to the FBI. And, a week before Biden traveled to Jeddah, 14-year-old Saudi American Rakan Aldossari recounted his escape from Saudi repression after the Biden administration ignored his pleas for help – a story in which Biden’s indifference is as troubling as MBS’s hostage-taking.
Many other American citizens whom Biden has pledged to free are still barred from leaving Saudi Arabia. The president’s inability to secure their release prior to expending significant political capital by granting a presidential visit to MBS indicates serious flaws in his approach to dealing with the crown prince.
Before Biden announced his trip to Jeddah, and despite my family’s plight at the hands of MBS, I urged the president to address relations with the Kingdom, albeit with conditions that include reciprocal respect of American interests and values. Despite Biden’s belief that the presidency “should stand for something,” it is not clear why he proceeded with his lopsided, one-way concessions.
While the president has already sparked predictable outrage, whether the fist-bump was a legacy-defining moment or a bad chapter in a hero’s story remains to be seen. I believe Biden is a principled leader who genuinely seems to care about human rights. And I remain hopeful that not all is lost.
By complementing realism with humanitarianism and demanding reciprocal concessions before any future engagements with MBS or meeting Saudi demands, Biden can recast how this moment will go down in history.
The president should start by insisting that the regime free political prisoners, including American prisoners, and that it lift the travel bans that have entrapped peaceful activists and their families.
If Saudi Arabia wants to continue a constructive intelligence/counterterrorism partnership, it must make substantive reforms to reverse the trend of targeting dissidents who pose no real threat and to refocus on legitimate security risks.
Biden has also repeatedly justified his engagement with MBS by pointing to the need for Saudi cooperation in bringing the disastrous war in Yemen to an end. While the United Nations-brokered ceasefire was a positive step forward, a final resolution is necessary to end the suffering and restore regional stability. The president should make clear that American support for the regime is contingent on nothing short of an iron-clad commitment from MBS to a peace settlement.
If he changes course, Biden can be remembered for driving a successful reset that salvaged the relationship, advanced mutual interests, and expanded overlapping values.
Otherwise, Biden will be known as the president who squandered the last opportunity to rein in the unbound and dangerous crown prince.