President Biden just fist-bumped a man who has my friend and colleague’s blood on his hands.
On the campaign trail, Biden promised us all that he would hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its crimes and make the country a “pariah.”
Instead of transforming the crown prince into an outcast, Biden has made him a pal. On Friday in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, the president greeted MBS, as the de facto Saudi ruler is known, with that stunning fist bump. According to news coverage of the day, the crown prince was unrepentant, only smirking when asked by reporters if he would apologize to Jamal’s family.
In a news conference later in Jiddah, Biden said he made his views on Jamal’s murder “crystal clear.”
Biden’s casual treatment of the crown prince is an embarrassment. His friendly gesture — indeed, this entire, disgraceful visit — is a crass betrayal of a campaign promise he made to the American people.
In 2020, Biden vowed that he would outdo then-President Donald Trump by taking the moral high ground on Saudi Arabia, specifically declaring that he would hold MBS accountable for Jamal’s murder. Now, however, the images of a grinning Biden sitting with Mohammed bin Salman make our president look like a desperate supplicant forced to kiss the ring of a mafia boss.
Those who have followed Mohammed bin Salman’s rise know that he is a man obsessed with social media and his public image. When he came to the United States on his tour in 2016, he made a point of posing with the biggest names in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. After the murder, MBS had his picture taken with Jamal’s oldest son, Salah. The image, which shows MBS shaking hands with the visibly discomfited Salah, is chilling.
Visuals like these help MBS consolidate power, and now Biden has given him a supercharged one. Make no mistake about the meaning of the signal the president of the United States has just broadcast across the world. Since Jamal’s murder, companies, academic institutions, think tanks and other institutions have distanced themselves from Saudi Arabia, pulling out of conferences, halting contracts and generally avoiding the problems of associating with a country whose leader had one of his critics chopped to pieces. Now the image of Biden treating Mohammed bin Salman like a casual friend gives the ultimate green light to resume business as normal with the kingdom. Now that Biden is cozying up to the Saudi regime, the coast is clear for others to do so as well.
Americans wanted this to turn out differently. Polling shows that the overwhelming majority of people in this country really don’t like Saudi Arabia’s regime. In the wake of Jamal’s murder, more Americans became aware of Washington’s huge shipments of arms to Riyadh for its bloody war in Yemen. That has led to repeated calls for Washington to stop arming the Saudis. But now, according to Reuters, the Biden administration is reportedly weighing lifting a ban on sending Saudi Arabia offensive weapons.
If Jamal were alive today, he would have urged Biden to demand that Mohammed bin Salman release those who were jailed during the prince’s rise. Jamal often wrote about people like influential cleric Salman al-Ouda and Saudi economist Essam al-Zamil, who continue to languish in jail. He called for the release of women’s activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was eventually freed from prison but remains under a travel ban. Did Biden speak up for them too? The transcript of his remarks suggests that he didn’t.
There are plenty of voices in Washington arguing that realpolitik, energy policy and America’s geopolitical interests should win out over the murder of one man.
But for Jamal’s family and friends, pushing for accountability for his killing was never just about one man. Jamal’s murder became a symbol for so many other tragedies in this world, including attacks against journalists and the hypocrisy of the United States cozying up to oil-rich dictators. Demanding justice for Jamal also served the larger goal of deterring atrocities by despotic regimes subsidized by U.S. taxpayers.
Many of us had hoped that pushing Saudi Arabia to take responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi would lead to more humanity in the American-led world order and our policies toward the Middle East. We had hoped that Biden would be a stronger ally in that fight.
Sadly, we were wrong.