Remarks of Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress briefing on "Human Rights in Saudi Arabia," November 10, 2020
The heartening news is that President-elect Joe Biden has clearly and unequivocally promised to end US military and diplomatic support for Saudi Arabia, as he has promised to reassess US interests in the region and ensure they align with American values and international human rights. I want to read his words from a presidential debate last year, because they are important and we intend to hold him to his promise:
"Yes…[I will punish senior Saudi leaders]. Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the Crown Prince [Mohamed bin Salman]. I would make it very clear. We are not going to sell more weapons to them [Saudi Arabia]. We were going to make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are. There is very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia. … I would… end the subsidies that we have, end the sales of material to the Saudis, [who are] going in and murdering children [in Yemen], and murdering innocent people. And they should be held accountable."
We hope that President-elect Biden recognizes that military sales are only one part of American support for Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration's stationing of thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia directly contributes to the survival of the monarchy: as President Trump bragged, "They [the Saudi government] wouldn't last a week if we're not there, and they know it."
A Biden Administration should pull out of the business of propping up unelected governments, in this case an unaccountable monarchy in Saudi Arabia. Emboldened by unconditional US backing, the Saudi regime has committed human rights abuses with impunity, including the ongoing detention of peaceful political activists, such as Salman Alodah and Walid Abulkhair, as well as senior royal princes who might criticize Crown Prince MBS, including former Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, and his brother Turki bin Abdullah.
U.S. backing has also emboldened Saudi Arabia's destabilizing regional belligerence. This is all the more frightening in the face of existing Saudi efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Restoring a nuclear agreement with Iran and encouraging regional dialogue for peaceful conflict resolution with its neighbors, both of which Biden has promised to do, will not be aided by the continued presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.
Holding Saudi Arabia, and specifically the Crown Prince, accountable for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, is an important goal that President-elect Biden has promised. He can readily contribute to this with the stroke of a pen, ordering the public release of the DNI report. This will help the efforts of my own organization, DAWN, as well as Khashoggi's widow, Hatice Cengiz, to hold MBS and his henchmen accountable in a court of law for luring a US-resident journalist outside of the United States in order to murder him.
President-elect Biden's stated goal of reassessing our relationship not just with Saudi Arabia, but with other abusive governments in the region, including Egypt, to better align with our values and human rights commitments is encouraging. The US is not responsible for fixing all that is wrong in Saudi Arabia or any other country in the world. Too much has gone catastrophically wrong with misguided, often false, interventions in the Middle East in the name of human rights.
A Biden administration can, and should, lead our government to exercise humility and restraint in its relationships around the world, and rejoin the multilateral organizations on which our collective survival depends. This also means ending US abuses, including support of abusive governments like Saudi Arabia, as an important measure of our humility, restraint, and respect for the peoples around the world our policies impact.