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Opinion Biden must speak truth to Saudi Arabia’s powerful on human rights

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in December. (Saudi Press Agency/Reuters)
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White House officials have confirmed President Biden intends to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks. Though Mr. Biden cautioned Friday that he still has “no direct plans” for such a trip, that was a classic non-denial denial, issued perhaps because there are still last-minute details to be resolved. The bottom line is that, barring some unforeseen change, the president will significantly soften the U.S. posture toward the regime whose de facto head, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), bears primary responsibility for the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — among other human rights violations — and which the president had previously promised, and attempted, to hold at a greater distance.

Realpolitik has triumphed over moral considerations. Like so many of his predecessors, Mr. Biden has made U.S. access to the kingdom’s vast oil supplies his priority. Shaken by higher gas prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the administration has been pleading with the Saudis to tap their petroleum reserves. These are probably the largest remaining such resource that could be brought to market in the short run — albeit with probably only modest effects on gas prices. A presidential visit to Saudi Arabia, and the legitimacy it confers upon the crown prince, is part of the price MBS is making Washington pay for that favor as well as for others, including steps toward recognizing Israel and a tenuous halt to Saudi Arabia’s war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

This is a deeply disappointing reversal, but Mr. Biden could still salvage some of his original, principled position. He could do this in two ways: first, by raising U.S. human rights concerns, including the Khashoggi case, while in Saudi Arabia — not only privately, in a meeting with MBS, but publicly, in any forum, such as a news conference, that presents itself. Mr. Biden should fully exploit any opening to do this, as presidents visiting other authoritarian states have at least tried to do in the past. Second, he should demand freedom for the many people in Saudi Arabia detained or otherwise restricted in their liberties for political reasons. Indeed, Mr. Biden should insist some or all of them be set free in conjunction with his visit. Three dual U.S.-Saudi citizens — Walid al-Fitaihi, Salah al-Haidar and Bader al-Ibrahim — have been arrested and detained on trumped-up charges at different times since MBS launched a crackdown on domestic opponents in November 2017. Though eventually released from jail, in part because of U.S. pressure, they remain under official suspicion and forbidden to leave the country, according to the Freedom Initiative, a U.S.-based nonprofit that monitors human rights in the Middle East.

The president might also allow time during his visit to talk with another U.S.-supported dictator, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of Egypt, who will be in Saudi Arabia at the same time for a regional gathering. If so, Mr. Biden should press for the release of Egyptian dissident Alaa Abdel Fattah, 40, a secular pro-democracy activist imprisoned for much of the past decade since Sissi took power in a coup. Modest though they would be, such gestures are the least Mr. Biden must do to retain U.S. consistency and credibility on human rights in the Arab world.