WASHINGTON — Last week the District of Columbia replaced a street sign, an action not ordinarily afforded press attention and attended by dignitaries. This one had both, because the street was in front of the Saudi Embassy, and its new name was Jamal Khashoggi Way.
Khashoggi was the dissident U.S.-based Saudi journalist who was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018, in what U.S. government assessments and independent experts view as at the near-certain direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the most powerful member of the Saudi ruling family.
After he was killed, Khashoggi was dismembered.
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As a candidate, President Biden said he planned to make Saudi Arabia’s government “pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.”
Now some are wondering if the United States is forsaking the commitments it made after the killing, as the need to bring down oil prices eclipses human rights concerns. Next month, Biden will travel to the petroleum-rich kingdom, where he will meet with the crown prince, who likely ordered the death of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist.
“We should not compromise our American values,” says Areej al-Sadhan, whose brother Abdulrahman al-Sadhan left the United States in 2014 to work on humanitarian relief in Saudi Arabia. He was arrested in 2018 for tweets criticizing the ruling regime and remains imprisoned there. “We should not compromise human rights.”
Biden has said he will not shy away from a confrontation with the Saudis over the killing of Khashoggi, as well as domestic repressive measures over women and others, but it is highly unlikely that he will be as strident as his own rhetoric once was. With gas prices at almost $5 nationally, U.S. political and economic interests make it especially challenging to alienate the world’s second-largest producer of crude oil.
“There’s a part of me that understands why, diplomatically, we’ve gotten to this point, but it’s also frightening and enraging,” says Bethany al-Haidari of the Human Rights Foundation, who fought a lengthy and harrowing battle in Saudi courts to wrest custody of her daughter from her abusive Saudi husband (unable to win in court, she eventually fled back to the United States with her 7-year-old child).
Now she is worried that Biden will be sending to authoritarians around the world the message that political expediency trumps core conviction. And while that may always be the case in the world of realpolitik, the images sure to emanate from Riyadh will starkly contrast the divide between American values and practices.
“He is going to meet with somebody that his own administration released the information he was culpable for the murder of a dissident,” al-Haidari told Yahoo News. “I don’t care if it’s about oil, as long as human rights is there as well.”
Just weeks into his presidency, Biden released an intelligence report that definitively blamed the killing on the crown prince, who “viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him.”
His administration promptly sanctioned 76 Saudis. It appeared that the White House would treat Riyadh the way it did Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang — as nodes of authoritarianism that, the president said, presented a challenge to democracy around the world. The way to challenge them, according to Biden, was to lead with the exemplary values of human rights and freedoms.
“Defending human rights and demonstrating that democracies deliver for their people is a fundamental challenge of our time,” he said in a statement last October, as he announced intentions to rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council. “It’s at the center of my administration’s foreign policy and it goes to the heart of who we are as a nation — and as a people.”
But that was before oil-rich Russia invaded Ukraine, severely constraining the world’s energy supply; before inflation became the Democrats’ top political concern. Even congressional Democrats who had once been harsh critics of Mohammed — also known by his initials, MBS — have softened their tone, aware of the danger that gas prices will pose in November’s midterm elections.
Last year, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., introduced a severe travel sanctions bill that would target top Saudis, including MBS. “I applaud the Biden Administration for naming MBS as Khashoggi’s killer, but it undercuts our message to Saudi Arabia if we accuse him of the crime and then do nothing to hold him accountable,” he said in a statement at the time.
Now locked in a tough reelection fight, Malinowski, with other Democrats, released a statement praising Biden for working with Riyadh to lower gas prices; the call to “elevate human rights concerns in bilateral discussions” comes at the bottom, as something of an afterthought.
Even if they understand why Biden is going to Saudi Arabia, critics and dissidents fear that the United States will lastingly concede moral authority for temporary relief. “This is going to only embolden this regime to commit more abuses, to undermine our human rights,” says al-Sadhan.
Although King Salman remains the regime’s titular head, it is his 36-year-old son and crown prince MBS who effectively runs the country and has maneuvered to the front of the succession line. A savvy political operator, he has tried to burnish the kingdom’s international reputation with superficial reforms that, critics say, do little to improve the lives of women, political dissidents and others.
“From what I’ve witnessed so far under MBS,” al-Sadhan told Yahoo News, “I don’t see much hope.”
A U.S. citizen based in California, al-Sadhan says she is certain that her brother has been tortured. She refrained from publicizing his case at first but later decided that public attention would help. The attention to Abdulrahman’s plight has not gone unnoticed by the Saudis.
“The moment I went public, I started to receive threats from the Saudi government” in the form of menacing messages on her phone and social media accounts, his sister says.
“Even though you’re in the U.S., we can find you,” went the threats, according to al-Sadhan. She remains determined to bring her brother back home, but doing so without help from the State Department will be all but impossible.
The White House has struggled to reconcile its shifting positions. On the same day that Jamal Khashoggi Way was unveiled in Foggy Bottom, the Washington neighborhood where the Saudi Embassy is nestled, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre struggled to reconcile Biden’s earlier support for human rights with the president’s current courtship of the regime.
“When it comes to human rights ... the president is a straight shooter,” she said. But in other exchanges with reporters, Jean-Pierre refused to say that the president blamed MBS for the Khashoggi killing. It was a striking departure from the way the president has spoken about Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he has branded a “war criminal.”
Saudi money and influence permeate establishment Washington, but no publicity offensive could erase the worldwide outrage following Khashoggi’s killing. And the announcement that Biden would meet with MBS gave opposition forces an opportunity to highlight what they see as Washington’s hypocrisy.
On June 15 at the Eaton Hotel in downtown D.C., the Human Rights Foundation held a showing of “The Dissident,” a 2020 documentary about Khashoggi’s killing. The venue was mere feet from the newsroom of the Washington Post, where Khashoggi had been a global affairs columnist. In his last column — published posthumously — he lamented the loss of press freedom in the Arab world, as well as the squandered promises of the Arab Spring.
“The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power,” he wrote. In early October 2018, he traveled to Istanbul in order to obtain a divorce. He would never be seen again.
The woman he had planned to marry is Hatice Cengiz. “I was so excited,” she says in the documentary. “What kind of wedding could we have? I didn’t want a huge celebration.”