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Biden’s Saudi Trip Widens Rift with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman

David Ottaway image

President Biden’s controversial mid-July trip to Saudi Arabia in a bid to make amends with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has resulted in no visible Saudi concessions either in increased oil production or improvement in human and political rights inside the kingdom. To the contrary, the de facto ruler, MBS, has led a campaign by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to keep oil prices high and seen his government impose outlandish prison sentences on his critics, including two more female Saudi activists.  

Biden had been cold shouldering MBS in retaliation for his sanctioning the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for which he had promised to make the prince a global pariah. But the spike in gasoline prices, fueling record-high inflation in the United States following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, changed his mind as November congressional elections neared. Saudi Arabia was the one country with sufficient oil production capacity to have a major impact on prices with a surplus production capacity of one million barrels a day.

In return for extending White House legitimacy to MBS, the crown prince has gone out of his way to signal that no concessions would be made to the American president.

Biden’s gambit has turned out to be very much a one-way transaction. In return for extending White House legitimacy to MBS, the crown prince has gone out of his way to signal that no concessions would be made to the American president. On September 5, OPEC and its ten allies, led by Russia, reversed course, and ended monthly increases that reached 690,000 barrels a day in August. Instead, they announced a cut in their collective production of 100,000 barrels. They also authorized Saudi Arabia to tinker with further changes to stop the fall in oil prices which have dropped by $350 a barrel since June but still hover around $85.

The tiny cut made no difference in actual OPEC+ production since its 23 members had not been able to keep up with earlier monthly increases, falling behind as much as 3.6 million barrels a day. But it certainly sent a political message to Biden that he should not expect any increase to help the Democratic Party at the polls in November.

Even more demonstrative of his disregard for Biden has been three recent cases where the specialized Saudi criminal court dealing with terrorism has actually increased sentences dramatically on two female activists after they sought to appeal for leniency and also condemned two protesting tribesmen to more-or-less life in prison.

MBS may have been motivated in part by Biden’s public mention of Khashoggi to escalate his campaign to stamp out all dissident and criticism in the kingdom to show he is not kowtowing to Biden. 

Biden went out of his way to make public that during his July 15 encounter with MBS in Jeddah he had raised, “at the top of the meeting,” Khashoggi’s murder. The president said he told him directly that he considered him “personally responsible,” an accusation the crown price again denied though he promised unspecified “reforms” to make sure such a thing would never happen again. But Biden gave no indication he had received any assent from the crown prince to ease the persecution of human and political rights activists, which has since become much worse. MBS may have been motivated in part by Biden’s public mention of Khashoggi to escalate his campaign to stamp out all dissident and criticism in the kingdom to show he is not kowtowing to Biden. 

On August 9, an appeals court of Saudi Arabia’s special criminal court more than quadrupled an initial sentence imposed on Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old PhD student and mother of two children studying at the University of Leeds in England, from 8 to 34 years in prison.  The court used counterterrorism and anti-cybercrime laws to convict her of “undermining the security of society” and “the stability of the state” and using her twitter account to “disrupt public order,” according to the Human Rights Watch account of her trial.

Less is known about a second case that came to light at the end of August involving Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, a mother of five children, who was sentenced to 45 years in prison for “violating the public order by using social media” and for “breaking the social fabric in the kingdom,” according to the Washington, DC-based DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now). It was not clear what her original sentence had been, but it was an appeals court that meted out the sentence.

The Biden administration has reacted with considerable caution. Biden himself has remained mum, leaving it to the State Department to comment, which said it had held “a number” of conversations to express its “significant concerns” with unnamed Saudi authorities in reaction to Shehab’s sentencing to 34 years: “We have made the point to them that freedom of expression is a universal human right to which all people are entitled.” But it has said nothing so far about the Qahtani case. 

Even when MBS mediated the release of ten foreign prisoners of war captured in Ukraine from Russian custody on September 21, two of whom were American citizens, Biden said nothing. For his part, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken only thanked “our Saudi partners” for “helping to spearhead” the deal without mention of the crown prince’s personal role. Arresting female activists is nothing new for MBS. He had previously ordered the incarceration of half a dozen people who had been pressing for women’s right to drive before he decreed it himself in June 2018. One of them, Loujain al-Hathloul, was sentenced by the same special criminal court to nearly six years in prison for her efforts. She is now out, albeit still living under a travel ban.

The prison sentences meted out to Shehab and Qahtani set a new record against Saudis voicing even the slightest criticism of MBS or his policies. Previously, the longest jail term for a “cybercrime” involved Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a humanitarian aid worker. In December 2021, he was given a 20-year sentence followed by a travel ban of the same length for a series of satirical tweets.

The new tactic of meting out record-high sentences to crush all dissent is continuing.

The new tactic of meting out record-high sentences to crush all dissent is continuing. In mid-September, the UK-based Alqst human rights group reported yet another one. Two members of the Howeitat tribe who had protested the government’s confiscation of their land to make way for MBS’s $500 billion NEOM mega city on the Red Sea were sentenced to 50 years in jail and a travel ban of equal length afterwards.

Ironically, Biden’s good-will bid to patch up personal relations with Crown Prince Mohammed, the likely ruler of the Saudi kingdom for the next half century, seems only to have made their relationship even more contentious and strained. It seems unlikely they will meet again soon, or even be exchanging warm greetings on the phone for the reminder of Biden’s time in office.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

David Ottaway image

David Ottaway

Middle East Fellow;
Former Washington Post Middle East Correspondent
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more