Rights groups express ‘deep concerns’ over Biden meeting Saudi crown prince

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Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to US intelligence agencies (AFP/File photo)
                                                   
Biden has said he is considering a trip to the kingdom, a stark reversal after calling for Riyadh to be made a pariah during his presidential campaign

More than a dozen human rights groups have voiced “deep concerns” over US President Joe Biden’s touted trip to Saudi Arabia and possible meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, warning such a visit could encourage violations of human rights in the absence of commitments from Riyadh.  

Biden confirmed last week he was considering a trip to the kingdom – a stark reversal after he called for Riyadh to be made a “pariah” during his campaign for the presidency. 

The oil-rich nation’s powerful crown prince, known as MBS, stands accused by US intelligence of ordering the murder of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered by Saudi agents in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in 2018. 

The accusation is vehemently denied by Riyadh, which has also been accused of wide-ranging rights abuses at home.  

“Efforts to repair the U.S. relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia without a genuine commitment to prioritize human rights are not only a betrayal of your campaign promises, but will likely embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” 13 NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, said in an open letter to Biden on Thursday. 

The crown prince’s government “routinely and callously abuses the rights of its own citizens, as well as those of Americans and others around the world,” the letter added.  

Biden has prided himself as a champion of democracy against authoritarian regimes, charting a starkly different path from his predecessor, Donald Trump, who maintained a warm relationship with MBS. 

But soaring energy prices due to supply chain snarls exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have infuriated Americans and sent Biden’s popularity plummeting. 

Saudi Arabia has lately addressed two of his priorities by agreeing to an oil production hike – which could help tame rocketing US inflation – and helping extend a truce in war-battered Yemen, where Riyadh leads a military coalition fighting against Houthi rebels. 

The letter urged the US president to insist on key prerequisites ahead of any meeting with MBS, including the immediate release of political prisoners, an end to “unlawful surveillance and state hostage-taking”, ending male guardianship, establishing a moratorium on executions and committing to maintaining the ceasefire in Yemen.

‘MBS should be shunned’

The demands come after the human rights groups said the “crown prince’s government continues to arbitrarily imprison, torture, and execute numerous individuals in violation of the internationally protected rights to a fair trial and due process”.

Rights groups have also cited an increase in mass executions and other human rights violations. The kingdom has reportedly executed 120 people since the start of this year.

Earlier this week, Congressman Adam Schiff criticised the planned meeting, saying the crown prince “should be shunned” for his role in the killing of Khashoggi.

“I wouldn’t shake his hand,” Schiff said. “This is someone who butchered an American resident, cut them up into pieces in the most terrible, premeditated way. Until Saudi Arabia makes a radical change in terms of human rights, I wouldn’t want anything to do with them.”

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On Wednesday, Senator Tim Kaine said he was “deeply against” any meeting between Biden and the crown prince. “I think it’s atrocious. I’d meet with other Saudi officials, but not that murderer,” said Kaine, who represents Virginia where Khashoggi was a resident.

Senator Chris Murphy, who met with administration officials on Monday, said he was “willing to be persuaded that there’s a benefit to this trip”, including shoring up the president’s Middle East policy.

“Would I be tougher on the Saudis and the Emiratis and the Egyptians? Absolutely. I think we need to do a better job of walking the walk on human rights rather than talking the talk,” Murphy said, according to Politico. “But when it comes to two of the biggest and most important portfolios in the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan, I think the administration has gotten it pretty right.”

But there are signs of a detente in Washington, with some lawmakers arguing that isolating Riyadh could be a mistake.

“Nobody approves or condones what happened [to Khashoggi],” said Senator Angus King. “On the other hand, foreign policy is driven by national interests. Human rights is clearly part of the national interest, but there are other aspects, and I think a presidential visit is rarely a bad thing.”

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