The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden is making clear that Saudi human rights violations won’t be ignored

Biden is trying to strike a balance between promoting human rights and American interests.

In this Oct. 27, 2011 photo, then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to then Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. President Joe Biden recently spoke to Saudi King Salman for the first time in Biden's just over a month-old administration. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

In a recent call with the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, President Biden struck a tone seldom witnessed in U.S.-Saudi diplomatic dialogue: one of subtle confrontation. During the conversation, Biden “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law” in the wake of an intelligence report directly implicating Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

This recalibration of the U.S.-Saudi relationship marks a sharp break from Donald Trump’s deference toward Saudi Arabia. Even so Biden is taking no direct-action against bin Salman, which has fueled a variety of objections from everyone from Congressional Democrats to exiled Saudi dissidents, like Madawi al-Rasheed. And this is not the first time human rights have been subordinated to safeguarding the American partnership with the Saudis. Despite these objections, Biden is making clear that the U.S. should have both a strategic partnership with the Saudis and work toward human rights. While this position is rare, and it often does not go far enough, it is needed to better match U.S. human rights rhetoric to reality.

The very roots of the American relationship with Saudi Arabia involved the U.S. turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s embrace of enslavement. The enduring image of the Feb 14, 1945, inaugural meeting between the United States and the Saudi Kingdom captures President Franklin D. Roosevelt seated across from King Ibn Saud with Colonel William Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia, on one knee serving as their interpreter.

But this is only one lens through which to see this event. Shortly before Ibn Saud greeted the President, a pair of the King's bodyguards (very likely enslaved people), ornately dressed with scimitars hanging from their waist and jambiyas slung across their chests, led the King across the gangplank onto the USS Quincy amid a throng of saluting sailors. During the four-hour meeting between the President and the King, where the two discussed oil, Palestinian territories and their future partnership, “7-foot tall Nubian slaves” could be found on the opposite deck of the destroyer chatting around an Oriental rug, sipping coffee or posturing for the camera onboard. In many ways, the attention drawn to the heads of state and their dialogue, and not to the enslaved people on the periphery, is a powerful illustration of the compromises the Roosevelt administration was willing to make.

There could have been more enslaved people at the meeting had Colonel Eddy not interjected. During the embarkation in Jeddah, the King’s party wanted to bring more than 100 guests aboard, from the court astrologer to the King’s enslaved people, 100 sheep and the King’s Harem. After great deliberation, Colonel Eddy negotiated the Saudis down to 47 guests (which included enslaved people), seven sheep and no Harem. Still, it was well more than the Navy could accommodate onboard the destroyer convoying the King to President Roosevelt.

Enslavement in Saudi Arabia would continue until 1962 Enslaved people were trafficked from disparate locations: West Africa, East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant and Southwestern Asia. The most significant vehicle for enslavement was the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Along the ancient trans-Saharan enslavement network, unwitting religious pilgrims were given low-cost travel expenses or duped by tribal leaders. Once these enslaved bodies reached East Africa, they were clandestinely shuttled across the Red Sea on dhows or small passenger planes. They were destined for the slave markets of Saudi Arabia.

In addition to trafficked Africans, women and girls were kidnapped from the Trucial States, Baluchistan (border of Iran and Pakistan), Nusayriah mountains in Syria or the Aden Protectorate to fill the royal harems. Many of the enslaved people trafficked into the Kingdom were gifted to young royal children. The enslaved often grew up alongside royalty and became their bodyguards or servants later in life.

For example, Said el Feisal was captured at age eight in Ethiopia and later gifted to the young Crown Prince Faisal. At the age of 20, Said became Faisal's executioner. As Said explains, his first execution did not go well, “I cut through the man's torso by mistake and went mad when I saw the blood and could not get the sword out.” After 150 severed heads, Said told the British journalist, John Osman, in 1963 that he was still consumed by “bad dreams.”

Said's testimonial is a blunt reminder that the many “servants” and “bodyguards” standing in plain sight during seminal meetings between the two nations had not chosen these roles. Despite their stately appearance and access to royalty, they were scarred by their enslavement.

Instead of objecting to this use of enslavement, American officials often worked at cross purposes with those trying to curtail Saudi Arabia’s use of enslaved people. The British Anti-Slavery Society had publicized these Saudi practices at the United Nations for decades after World War II. However, the Society made little headway because the American leadership remained consistent obstacles.

Dwight Eisenhower dealt another setback to the Society’s lobbying efforts during his second term by courting King Saud to be the cornerstone of the Eisenhower Doctrine — which while abstaining from the pivotal United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. This decision’s optics were on full display during Saud’s state visit in the winter of 1957 as “gigantic Nubian slaves toting jeweled daggers and machine guns” protected the King. Eisenhower said nothing, and simply rolled out the red carpet in Washington, DC. Saud’s visit produced the high water mark for the domestic protest of the U.S.-Saudi partnership. Everyone from the African American press to the American Jewish Congress strongly denounced the administration’s deal with the “Slave King.”

While the Society had not succeeded in passing stricter enforcement at the 1956 Supplementary Convention on Slavery, the issue found its way into headlines worldwide from Mumbai to Massachusetts. The ever-increasing domestic and international attention to this issue forced John F. Kennedy to resolve the inherent contradiction enslavement posed to his liberal world order rhetoric and the U.S.-Saudi partnership when he entered office.

In the fall of 1962, Kennedy began to challenge the Saudi leadership on the enslavement issue. He warned Crown Prince Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud at a White House visit that his administration “would find it hard to justify to its own people a deep commitment to a system of government that was corrupt or bore the stamp of slavery and arbitrary denial of civil rights and personal freedoms.” International pressure at the United Nations, spearheaded by the British Anti-Slavery Society, and genuine policy interest in human rights shaped Kennedy’s unprecedented actions.

Amid the international milieu of rising decolonization and the Yemeni Civil War, Kennedy pressed Saudi leaders to “modernize and reform” if they wished to enjoy U.S. military assistance. Kennedy's relationship with the de facto King, Crown Prince Faisal, and the threat of withholding American military aid produced the end to Saudi enslavement in 1962. Yet, even Kennedy never sought to sanction Saudi officials for their clear violations of human rights and international law. The Kingdom's strategic importance was simply too high in a volatile region. That only became more true, as American dependence on Saudi oil soared in the 1970s and beyond, and after another key U.S. ally in the region, Iran, turned into an adversary after the Iranian Revolution.

Regularly, therefore, American officials ignored Saudi human rights violations, while pumping weapons into the kingdom in exchange for keeping oil prices low. Kennedy took a different tact and leveraged American military assistance to improve human rights in the Kingdom. Biden is using Kennedy’s playbook in his early negotiations. This may not satisfy progressives who want to see Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman held accountable for Khashoggi’s murder. But sanctioning the future King could push the Saudis closer to Russia and China and leave the United States and its allies weakened in the region.

One must realize that America’s partnership with the Saudis was born without a care toward human rights. Enslaved people stood in plain sight as Roosevelt negotiated entree to Saudi oil. This Faustian bargain has proven hard to surmount. Biden, like Kennedy, is confronting the Saudis — but neither punished Saudi leaders. And so long as the Saudis are still a geostrategic ally, many will be unsatisfied with the Kingdom’s lack of human rights accountability. This does not, however, mean that U.S. leaders should not push back, and press the Saudis. Biden has made it clear that human rights and a strategic partnership must coexist, and egregious violations of human rights by the Saudis will not be completely ignored.