President Joe Biden is bringing the Saudi crown prince in from the cold. Mohammed bin Salman’s human rights record remains abysmal, but Biden seems to have decided that — to lower fuel prices and strengthen the alliance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — he must stop keeping the crown prince at arm’s length.
But the decision to meet MBS, as he is often called, risks being profoundly counterproductive.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is about more than the territorial integrity of a sovereign state. It also reflects an attack by Russia’s autocratic president, Vladimir Putin, on the democratic aspirations of the Ukrainian people, which cast a harsh light on Putin’s increasingly repressive rule.
That is, the Ukraine conflict represents not only a military challenge to Ukraine but also a political challenge to democracy. But while Russia today in Ukraine is confronting the geographic limits of its conventional military capacity, the global contest between autocracy and democracy is global. That is why Biden should have resisted pressure to meet with the autocratic crown prince.
If Biden reduces the war in Ukraine to a mere geopolitical struggle, the autocrats of the world will have cause to rejoice. They will argue that democracies proclaim their values but then sell them for a cheaper tank of gas.
The problem extends far beyond Putin, who doesn’t bother to portray his repressive kleptocracy as a model for the world.
Rather, the more significant adversary in the contest between autocracy and democracy is the Chinese government, which touts its dictatorship as a supposedly superior governance model and seems to relish opportunities to portray the U.S. government’s commitment to democracy and human rights as hypocritically selective.
MBS is a brutal dictator. The U.S. shouldn’t rehabilitate his image.
The main reason for Biden’s possible embrace of the crown prince is the Saudi promise to pump modest amounts of additional oil to partially ease the shortfall caused by sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion. Energy prices have jumped around the world, and Biden wants to be seen taking steps to stem inflation.
Yet MBS remains a brutal dictator. He has harshly suppressed all dissent in the kingdom. A U.S. intelligence assessment attributes the Saudi government’s murder of the independent journalist Jamal Khashoggi to MBS’s direct approval.
The modest advances for women’s rights under his reign — for example, letting women drive — have been accompanied by the imprisonment and torture of women’s rights activists. Improvement in the lives of women, as Mohammed bin Salman sees it, are to be secured by monarchical prerogative, not people’s demand for their rights.
Moreover, since 2015 a Saudi- and United Arab Emirates-led coalition has repeatedly bombed Yemeni civilians. The Saudi government on June 2 agreed to a two-month extension of a two-month cease-fire in Yemen. But Riyadh has made no serious attempt to provide accountability for war crimes against Yemeni civilians, meaning that the killing of civilians could easily mount again if the fighting resumes.
Biden was right to maintain distance from such a tyrant. Nothing warrants now admitting him to the realm of respectable leaders.
Biden’s efforts to build and maintain a global coalition in favor of Ukraine do not justify the move. Yes, lowering oil prices may help maintain Western unity on Russia — and may calm American consumers. But if that occurs at the expense of the democratic values also at stake, the move could easily backfire.
The Russian military’s summary executions and indiscriminate bombardment of populated areas in Ukraine have been awful. They need to be stopped, and the senior officials who direct them prosecuted.
But as the Biden administration has recognized, the Kremlin is not the main challenge to democracy today. Rather, the government with both the economic means and political inclination to promote autocratic rule as an alternative to democracy is China.
In contrast to Russia’s brutal warmaking, China’s support for autocracy relies more on diplomatic and economic pressure. It claims that democracies are too messy, short-sighted, and slow in contrast to the dictatorial impositions of the Chinese Communist Party.
Beijing uses threats of economic retaliation against governments who might condemn its brutal repression (for example, its detention of one million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims to force them to abandon their religion, culture, and language) or its self-serving or ineffective policies (such as its early failures to contain the COVID-19 virus, or its current extreme “zero-COVID” policies, because Xi Jinping cannot admit error.)
Meanwhile, the Chinese government seeks every opportunity to spotlight inconsistencies in the U.S. commitment to democracy. That is why it is so important for the U.S. to respond to Russia’s military challenge in Ukraine in a way that embraces democratic values in principle and practice.
What Biden can do in Saudi Arabia
With Biden now having decided to proceed and meet MBS, he should elevate — not jettison — the democratic values at stake.
First, he should speak out forcefully and publicly about the ongoing human rights horrors of the Saudi crown prince’s rule. A mere mention that Biden discussed “human rights” privately with the crown prince (as Biden did after his June 2021 meetingwith Putin) will not suffice. The test is whether the Saudi people hear the details of what was discussed, since they have the greatest capacity to press for genuine reform. They should feel emboldened, not abandoned, by the meeting.
Second, Biden should resist further blackmail. It is too early to resume the sale of offensive weapons to the Saudi military, given that little stands in the way of renewed bombing of Yemeni civilians, and there has been no accountability for past war crimes.
Biden should also reject the Saudi demand for the U.S. government to intervene to stop civil lawsuits in U.S. courts against Mohammed bin Salman for the Khashoggi murder. Given that the Saudi justice system has made no serious effort to prosecute those who ordered Khashoggi’s brutal killing, civil suits are one of the few remaining forms of accountability. In addition, Biden should state that his administration will impose targeted sanctions on Saudi officials who continue to direct serious rights violations.
Finally, Biden should press forward with legislation that would pivot the United States toward a green energy transition and away from fossil fuels that empower petro-autocrats like MBS and Putin while accelerating climate collapse.
Only such a firm public embrace of human rights and democracy will hold a chance of upholding the democratic values that are also at the heart of the Ukraine war. Otherwise, Biden risks securing only short-term gains in providing military support to Ukraine while undermining the far more important global political contest for democracy with China.