President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week is unlikely to bring any significant diplomatic breakthroughs — whether or not he decides to shake hands with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who, according to a CIA assessment, ordered the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi). The Saudi regime almost certainly won’t make any human rights concessions. Nor will it make promises to help stabilize world energy markets, even though Biden cites this as a key reason he’s traveling to Jiddah in the first place.
So what will Biden have to show at the end of the week for abandoning his campaign promise to treat the regime as a “pariah”? Not much. But there is one way for Biden to salvage something positive from this debacle and deliver real relief to American citizens suffering at the hand of the Saudi regime: He can bring some of them home on his plane Saturday.
“Air Force One is large enough for all of them,” reads a letter sent to Biden on Tuesday by Ali Al-Ahmed, president of the Committee for American Hostages in Saudi Arabia, a group that works with families of American citizens and residents who are unjustly imprisoned in Saudi Arabia or barred from leaving the kingdom. “These American citizens need to come home now. There is no better way to come home than riding home with their top elected leader.”
Ahmed’s cousin, Badr al-Ibrahim, was released in 2021 after spending two years in prison for criticizing the regime’s human rights record, but he is still banned from leaving the country. The physician is only one of many American citizens being held hostage by the Saudi regime. They include American journalist Salah al-Haidar, his mother Aziza al-Yousef, physician Walid al-Fitaihi and women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, all of whom were jailed for human rights activism and now are banned from travel. Fitaihi and Hathloul were allegedly tortured in prison.
The families of these Americans perceive a double standard in how they are treated by the U.S. government, compared with the efforts the State Department has made when helping American citizens detained in places such as Russia, Venezuela and Iran. Ahmed told me that the Saudi government is holding about 10 additional American citizens unjustly in its prisons, but those families have not gone public because they fear retaliation if they speak out.
“MBS has increased the climate of fear to its highest levels in Saudi history, and that is driving American hostages and their families to remain silent,” he said. “If Mr. Biden is unable to free American hostages from Saudi prisons and others trapped in the walled kingdom, he cannot justify his trip.”
There are several U.S. citizens in Saudi cells who need the U.S. government’s help to get out. I spoke with one U.S.-based family member of an elderly Saudi American who has been languishing in a Riyadh prison since last November. The family member, who asked to keep the details of the case private, told me that the elderly man was arrested for a tweet that included criticism of the Saudi regime. No charges have ever been brought against him.
The State Department told the family member it would not even classify the elderly man as “wrongfully detained,” because he hadn’t been charged. The U.S. citizen has received only one visit from a U.S. diplomat in eight months. Moreover, the State Department urged the family member of the elderly prisoner not to go public with the case, the family member told me, claiming it would make it more difficult to resolve.
In Biden’s Post op-ed justifying his trip, the president pledged that his administration would continue to push for lifting travel restrictions for the released American citizens, but he didn’t say anything about the Americans who remain imprisoned. Will he head home on his plane and leave them to suffer without even a mention?
U.S. officials say Biden must engage with Saudi Arabia because of the continuing war in Yemen and the threat from Iran. Sure. But that doesn’t mean Biden has to give the regime a pass on human rights or its mistreatment of our people. The administration also touts the fact that Biden will become the first American president to fly directly from Israel to Jiddah in Saudi Arabia. Fine. But that’s a symbolic move that can’t be seen as a substitute for real accomplishments.
Yet if Biden and his team decide to use his visit to secure the release of U.S. citizens who are imprisoned or banned from leaving, the political benefits to him will be enormous. This is the bare minimum that Biden would need to claim that his trip is not a failure. The lives of these American citizens deserve more attention than a handshake.