President Biden will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as "MBS") during his July visit to Saudi Arabia, the National Security Council's John Kirby confirmed Tuesday. But both the trip and the meeting, ostensibly motivated by rising energy prices amid the war in Ukraine, have already garnered some pushback — in addition to a number of other human rights abuses, MBS is believed to have approved the murder of former Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Here's what experts have said about a controversial sit-down between the two leaders:
A visit would serve to indulge the Saudi regime
Biden had promised during his presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia "a pariah" for a few reasons, Khashoggi included. And though he has made some (but perhaps not enough) progress in that department, meeting with and making "concessions" to bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler, is both risky and at odds with his campaign vow, claimed The Washington Post editorial board.
"The contrast between professed U.S. principles and U.S. policy would be stark and undeniable," the editorial board argued of a meeting between Biden and bin Salman. "For decades, U.S. presidents have indulged the Saudi regime, based on a sometimes exaggerated sense of its strategic importance. How much longer?"
It's actually an opportunity
Others, however, believe that a meeting (even a reluctant one), could be a "surprising opportunity" for both Washington and Riyadh — that is, if "both sides will take it."
Writing for Politico, the Atlantic Council's Daniel Shapiro and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies' Mark Dubowitz argued that Biden's known skepticism of the Saudis perhaps affords him an edge at strengthening "bipartisan support in Congress and among the American people for the principle that this complicated, yet vital, relationship is worth preserving." Stabilizing the U.S.-Saudi partnership is mutually beneficial for both parties, and "should lead Biden and the Saudi leadership to embrace a framework to recognize and advance their respective core strategic interests," they added.
Though the "Khashoggi murder will continue to hang heavily over this relationship, as it should," Biden and the Saudis — MBS included — could use this visit as both an opportunity to credit Riyadh for the "dramatic social reforms" it has implemented, as well as a chance to push recent human rights advances even further, respectively.
He's just being realistic
Yes, Biden is essentially violating his campaign vow by visiting with both the kingdom and bin Salman, but — let's face it — he's just being realistic, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy Andrew Exum opined recently for The Atlantic.
"Biden, for his part, is sacrificing his values today in the interests of something we haven't seen much of in the past two decades: realism," Exum said. "And as unpopular as it may be among people I respect, I'm okay with that."
There's also the fact that the U.S. can only do so much, especially once energy is brought into the mix. "Biden may have been sincere in his desire to incorporate values in his foreign policy," columnist Steven Cook mused for Foreign Policy, "but the bottom line is that there is little he can do to compel authoritarians bent on political control to respect human rights, and even less so when said authoritarians are sitting on top of a lot of oil."
Biden isn't visiting Riyadh to celebrate the "new dynamism enveloping the country," Cook wrote. "He is going because of Saudi Arabia's oil, which was always the basis of the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship. And the price Mohammed bin Salman is commanding for his help is a cordial visit from the man who once vowed to make him a pariah." It was always going to be that way, Cook said.
Further, "the U.S. needs allies in rough neighborhoods," The Wall Street Journal editorial board argued Wednesday. That means "Biden is right to try to patch up relations, even if it means offending his party's left."
If he's going to do it, there should be set terms
By meeting with MBS, Biden runs the risk of unintentionally vindicating Saudi leaders and lending them "instant credibility on a global stage," posited Lama Fakih, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. But if he insists on doing so, the president should at least secure certain human rights-related commitments from Saudi authorities prior to this visit, human rights groups have urged. Suggested pledges include the release of all detained dissidents and the end of "arbitrary" travel bans on rights activists and U.S. citizens, among others.