AZIZ EL YAAKOUBI
SAUDI pro-government commentators are gloating over U.S. President Joe Biden’s planned visit next month, saying the U.S. leader’s about-turn on his vow to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” reflected the kingdom’s importance in global affairs.
After the White House confirmed on Tuesday that Biden would meet de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on a trip to the region, the commentators took to social media to praise the prince for his handling of the crisis in U.S.-Saudi ties.
“We said it before and we did not exaggerate, they (Western leaders) will all come successively to Riyadh,” tweeted Faisal AlShammeri, a reporter at Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV.
“Realpolitik changed the administration’s convictions,” he added.
Rights groups, in contrast, said the visit risks “fostering repression” inside the kingdom, the world’s largest oil exporter.
U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia have been under strain since the 2018 murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi operatives in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
Biden had refused to deal directly with Prince Mohammed following a U.S. intelligence report implicating him in the killing. The Saudi government denied any involvement by the prince, saying the murder was a heinous crime by a rogue group.
But Washington’s desire to improve ties with Gulf monarchies has become more urgent following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which highlighted the relevance of Gulf oil producers as Europe looks to cut its energy dependence on Russia.
Biden’s July 15-16 visit to the kingdom, where he is also due to attend a summit of Arab leaders, ends his campaign pledge to make the kingdom a pariah as he struggles to combat high U.S. gasoline prices and build a united international front to isolate Russia.
Former Saudi intelligence chief and senior royal Prince Turki al-Faisal blasted critical remarks, carried in U.S. media, about the prince and the kingdom’s human rights record and suggested Biden was trying to save his presidency.
“It is the tanking popularity of the president that brings him to us. It is his legitimacy that he hopes to bolster by meeting with our crown prince,” Prince Turki wrote in an op-ed published in Saudi newspaper Arab News on Saturday.
Prince Turki and other commentators highlighted Saudi Arabia’s importance, whether for regional and energy security or global politics.
Saudi political scientist Hesham Alghannam tweeted that the visit was taking place with “our conditions and interests”.
Rights advocates said Biden’s visit risks “encouraging new abuses and further entrenching impunity” in the kingdom where the prince, widely known by the initials MbS, has cracked down on dissidents and opponents during his swift rise to power.
Thirteen human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and London-based Saudi group ALQST, last week issued a joint letter urging Biden to secure the release of detained dissidents and remove travel bans on others, including U.S. citizens, before he visits Saudi Arabia.
Last year, Saudi authorities released activists with U.S. citizenship on bail pending trials, as the kingdom moved to address criticism from the Biden administration over its human rights record.
“MbS will take it (meeting with Biden) as empowering him to get more brutal and rogue,” Abdullah al-Awdah, Gulf director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), said in a Twitter post.
“For what?!,” he added.