The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion LGBTQ people need a voice in Saudi Arabia. Biden should do his part.

Saudi troops salute a screen displaying images of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father, King Salman, on July 3. (Amr Nabil/AP)

When Air Force One lands in the coastal city of Jiddah this week, President Biden will set foot in one of the most dangerous places in the world for LGBTQ people: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

How homophobic? Last month, when Biden signed his executive order advancing LGBTQ equality and announced that the State Department would allow U.S. embassies and diplomatic outposts to fly the pride flag on the same flagpole as the U.S. flag, the Saudi government launched a crackdown on LGBTQ expression everywhere in the kingdom.

The Saudis went so far as to ban nearly anything bearing rainbow colors. The threat? The colors, they said, might evoke the pride flag and thus promote homosexuality in children.

Don’t think for one second that displays of anti-gay hatred in Saudi Arabia come at the instigation of a group of rogue religious extremists that gets in its licks while an enlightened Saudi leadership, focused on heady affairs of state, isn’t looking.

Joe Biden: Why I'm going to Saudi Arabia

It was the Saudi Commerce Ministry, which is under the thumb of King Salman and the country’s 36-year-old de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that posted a Twitter video showing its officials combing through stores, bags and backpacks for items bearing rainbow colors.

Official bigotry didn’t stop with Twitter messaging, either.

The government also arranged for a reporter at a state-owned television channel to trail government workers through Riyadh as they confiscated offending materials. In a voice-over, a government employee is heard stating that the regime is focused on any item that “indirectly promotes homosexuality” and turns toys into “nothing but poisoned messages that target the innocence of children.”

The Saudis have been going to great expense to portray their oil-rich desert kingdom as a modernized, business-friendly bastion of reform in the Middle East. They indeed have loosened a bit of their tight grip on women, who may now drive cars. But discriminatory treatment of women is baked into Saudi culture, as is the suppression of religious expression except for Islam. And in few places on Earth will you find more clerically sanctioned hatred of homosexuality. Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, has declared consensual same-sex sexual conduct to be “one of the most heinous crimes,” adding that gay people are a “disgrace and shameful in this world and the hereafter.”

The president is headed to the kingdom with all that as a backdrop — and with the brutal murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi laid at the crown prince’s feet. Biden spelled out why he’s going to Saudi Arabia in a Post op-ed. Establishing “a more stable and integrated Middle East” and “normalization between Israel and the Arab world” are his twin goals. If he can come away from Saudi Arabia with Israel locked in securely with its Arab neighbors, with an ensured supply of Middle East energy resources to the United States and the West, and with a firm blockade against China’s economic incursion, then Biden may well consider the trip time well spent — notwithstanding the heat he’s taking for turning a blind eye to Saudi human rights transgressions.

Post publisher Fred Ryan, in response to Biden’s trip, has explained clearly and quite bluntly what is wrong with the foray at this time and under these circumstances.

Fred Ryan: Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia erodes our moral authority

Over the years, I have had my say about Saudi Arabia, which I continue to keep tabs on since traveling there as a banker in the ’80s.

Today, I’m fixed on those moments when Biden will be on Saudi soil.

“No one should face discrimination because of who they are or whom they love,” the White House said during Pride Month. Biden took credit for having “championed the rights of LGBTQI+ Americans and people around the world” since taking office.

Biden has a chance to let leaders from across the Middle East know in no uncertain terms where the United States stands. The Jiddah summit will include members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates), Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.

In laying out his vision for the region, Biden should use that platform to call for a Saudi kingdom and Middle East that promote and protect — not trample and destroy — the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. He should announce for all the world to hear that a strategic partnership with the United States also rests upon recognition of fundamental human rights, including respect and dignity for all people to live without fear no matter who they are, where they live or whom they love.

Change the minds of those who deride the Saudi visit? Maybe not. But to go to Saudi Arabia and, in the end, fail to speak out on human rights publicly and forcefully would also be a disgrace.