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Sunday, February 5, 2023

Fist-bumping repression: Campaign pledge falls to realpolitik — but was it worth it?

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The picture of President Biden fist-bumping with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman is dispiriting. MBS is inextricably associated with, as the CIA concluded, ordering the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, an American journalist and Saudi critic.  

Yes, there has been progress on rights under the 36-year-old crown price — but he rules by fear: imprisoning, torturing or executing opponents and targeting Saudi critics beyond its border. He’s sought to intimidate or control neighboring countries and launched a disastrous war in Yemen.

MBS is an arrogant thug.

During the 2020 campaign, Biden vowed that the Saudi prince would be treated as a “pariah.” The president said he confronted MBS at a private meeting, holding him responsible for the Khashoggi murder; the prince denied responsibility.   

And yet, as disturbing as the optics may be, heads wiser than mine say there were compelling reasons for this weekend’s meeting. The oil-rich Saudis have the capability to alleviate soaring energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. shares intelligence with them. With its resources, Saudi Arabia is the most influential country in the Arab region. 

“If the United States wants to deal with the Arab world, it has to deal with Saudi Arabia,” says Frank Wisner, a former ambassador and top American diplomat.

I have little expertise in geopolitics — I’m a proud hack political reporter — and I haven’t been to Saudi Arabia in more than 30 years. 

It’s a markedly different place, most every visitor says. MBS is bringing some modernity — socially and economically — to this tribal kingdom. Women now are in the work force, some holding top jobs. Women are able to drive and don’t need permission from males for many, but not all, rights. Movies and entertainment now are allowed, and the repressive religious police have been curtailed.

MBS’s “Vision 2030” sees a prospering high tech, financial center — with a sparkling new city rising next to the Red Sea — while weaning off its dependency on oil. To achieve this, the crown prince is calling for $100 billion in foreign investments a year by the end of the decade.   

The Saudis, while claiming they have other options, would prefer to do this in concert with their longtime ally and protector, America. This is especially the case dealing with their arch enemy, Iran.

Yet for all the talk about seeking help from MBS, Biden has a lot of leverage in this relationship. The president is helping to facilitate a more permanent truce in the long war in Yemen, which, viewing it as a proxy war against Iran, has been a humanitarian and financial disaster. 

The Saudis need U.S. investment, notes Bruce Riedel, a Middle East adviser to several administrations and author of a book on the 75-year U.S.-Saudi relationship: “Saudi Arabia needs America much more than we need them. China won’t protect them from Iran, nor will Russia.”

Despite the enormous volume of American arms sales, the Yemen war showed that the Saudi military is not a crack fighting force. 

Domestically, while MBS’s reforms get much attention, the kingdom remains a very repressive regime. Women who speak out for more rights are imprisoned, sometimes tortured. They treat LGBTQ citizens as perverts. Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a leading advocacy organization for political and human rights, says Saudi Arabia is “one of the worst places in the world for political freedom.”

The murder of Khashoggi in Turkey may be the most brutal transnational repression but it’s hardly isolated. Saad Aljabri, who was the number two person in Saudi Intelligence, wasn’t seen as an MBS loyalist; sensing the danger, he fled to Canada. He says the crown prince sent a hit squad to get him, but they were thwarted by Canadian authorities. He calls MBS a “psychopath.”

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote about a young Saudi teenager, Rakan Aldosseri, whose family sued for their claims in a refinery transaction; one of the defendants in the commercial deal was MBS. The son and his father, realizing the peril, managed a harrowing escape to America. Ignatius urged Biden to find “the strength and decency to say what Rakan — along with the Khashoggi family and so many thousands of other oppressed Saudis — have been waiting to hear: Enough is Enough.”

Any answer depends on whether the young prince has learned lessons from his deadly miscalculations and realizes his vision depends on a more transparent, less tyrannical country. 

A series of interviews he conducted with The Atlantic earlier this year isn’t encouraging. He unconvincingly denied any complicity in the Khashoggi murder: “If that’s the way we did things” — murdering authors of critical op-eds — “Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list. If you’re going to go for another operation like that, for another person, it’s got to be professional and it’s got to be one of the top 1,000.” On whether Biden misunderstood him: “Simply, I do not care.”

Whatever the upshot of this weekend’s meeting, that doesn’t augur well.

We need to deal with bad guys like him with eyes open. “MBS is a reckless bully,” says Riedel. “The only change (in him) is the realization that his war in Yemen is a disaster for the Kingdom.”

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

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