U.S. President Joe Biden travels to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian territories starting Wednesday, and the trip highlights an inconvenient truth for Washington—that when it comes to the Middle East, the U.S. is especially willing to cozy up to countries with spotty rights records. Major, recent examples are Washington’s ties to Israel and Saudi Arabia despite the killing of two journalists—Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in May and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
This week’s trip will be Biden’s first visit to the Middle East as President; his last official journey there was in 2016, while he was Vice President, and visited the United Arab Emirates, Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. He will face scrutiny over the U.S. response to Abu Akleh and Khashoggi’s killings at a time when a key concern is the high price of oil and gas, something Riyadh as a major oil producer can influence. The administration is also keen to maintain close ties to Israel as the country boosts cooperation with the Arab Gulf, and as talks over reinstating the Iran nuclear deal falter.
“At this point in time, the Biden administration has taken the decision to put interests before values and this is something that has almost always been the case in the Middle East,” says Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Pariah” no more
While on the presidential campaign trail, Biden said that he would make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are” following Khashoggi’s assasination in Istanbul; U.S. officials later determined the killing—which saw him lured to the Saudi embassy there and dismembered with a bone saw—was approved by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, according to a U.S. intelligence report.
Major human rights groups have criticized Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia, citing fears in a June 9 letter that it could encourage “further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.” Biden has maintained that the purpose of his trip is not to meet MBS. “I guess I will see the King and the Crown Prince, but that’s—that’s not the meeting I’m going to. They’ll be part of a much larger meeting.”
Regional experts have pointed out that the visit reflects a recalibration in U.S.-Saudi relations since Biden’s critical remarks against the kingdom. They argue that while it made sense for him to embrace an anti-authoritarian agenda to help get elected, Biden’s choices since becoming president have become more complicated—particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended oil markets and contributed to ballooning inflation. “They raised expectations because of some of their very harsh talk and rhetoric about… Muhammad Bin Salman,” says Michael Hanna, U.S. program director at International Crisis Group. “That was a campaign choice that perhaps made sense for them in trying to distinguish themselves from the Trump administration, which they accused of coddling dictators.”
But now, Biden is hoping Saudi Arabia will mitigate soaring energy costs sparked by the war in Ukraine by bringing more oil onto the global market. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest oil producers and has spare production capacity.
“I do not see a way where Biden is traveling now on this trip, where Saudi Arabia is going to be identified as a pariah state,” says Noura Erakat, a Palestinian American activist and human rights attorney.
Erakat tells TIME that in many ways Biden is continuing his predecessor Donald Trump’s Middle East policies. “He’s doing what all American leaders have done, which is continuing to advance the imperial interests of the United States, which is American hegemony,” she says.
Biden is aware of the criticism around his trip. He penned a Washington Post op-ed last week laying out his reasons for visiting Saudi Arabia. “From the start, my aim was to reorient—but not rupture—relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years,” he wrote. Biden emphasized the importance of global trade, supply chains, and stabilizing oil markets as well as highlighting steps the U.S. took in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. That included the release of the U.S. intelligence report on his killing, new sanctions on a unit of Saudi Arabia’s royal guard that reports to MBS, and 76 U.S. entry bans targeting those found to be harassing dissidents.
For many, the op-ed underscored how controversial Biden’s trip has become. “Needless to say, it’s unusual for a president to issue a preemptive defense of a foreign trip,” tweeted Gregg Carlstrom, The Economist’s Middle East correspondent.
Farouk points out that from the start of the Biden administration, they installed government officials who prioritized stable relationships with Saudi Arabia. “If you look at the names of officials, these are not people who before coming into office called for making Saudi Arabia a pariah; these are people who have always stressed the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship for U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East and beyond.”
Israel and Abu Akleh’s death
In addition to Khashoggi, human rights groups have raised the alarm about the May 11 killing of Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist. Several investigations, including those by the Washington Post, CNN, and the U.N., concluded that an Israeli soldier likely fired the bullet that killed Abu Akleh. Israeli officials initially denied the killing before saying that the country’s security forces may have been to blame.
The U.S. State Department said earlier this month following an investigation that it “found no reason to believe that this was intentional.” The State Department added that it “could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet that killed” Abu Akleh because it was “badly damaged.” The findings were met with criticism by academics, activists, and journalists. “If the United States is going to make such a bold claim that Abu Akleh’s killing was an accident—a claim that challenges what other investigations have found—then the State Department must provide evidence to back it up,” wrote Palestinian American journalist Abdallah Fayyad in The Boston Globe.
For Erakat, the U.S. State Department investigation is “bulls—.”
U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, also a Palestinian American, has urged Biden to try and determine which soldiers were responsible for firing the bullet that killed Abu Akleh when he meets Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid this week. “When an American citizen is murdered abroad, it is typically standard procedure for the U.S. to open a criminal investigation,” Tlaib wrote in a July 8 statement. “But in this case, the State Department and the Biden Administration have yet to launch an independent U.S. investigation, led by the FBI, into Shireen’s murder, as was demanded by more than 80 Members of Congress in separate letters to the Biden Administration.”
Abu Akleh’s family have demanded a meeting with Biden in a letter sent to him last week. “We, the family of Shireen Abu Akleh, write to express our grief, outrage and sense of betrayal concerning your administration’s abject response to the extrajudicial killing of our sister and aunt by Israeli forces,” reads a copy of the letter obtained by The Intercept. “In the days and weeks since an Israeli soldier killed Shireen, not only have we not been adequately consulted, informed, and supported by U.S. government officials, but your administration’s actions exhibit an apparent intent to undermine our efforts toward justice and accountability for Shireen’s death.”
Par for the course
Experts and rights groups point out, though, that Abu Akleh’s killing is not the first time journalists have been killed by Israeli fire. At least 30 reporters have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza since 2000, according to the non-profit Reporters Without Borders. More broadly, rights groups have increasingly criticized Israel’s wider treatment of Palestinians. Over the last two years, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and a U.N. special rapporteur have accused Israel of apartheid.
For Saudi Arabia’s part, at least 30 journalists are currently in detention in the kingdom for criticizing the government. Saudi Arabia also continues to use torture as punishment—often in the aftermath of unfair trials—and is among the countries with the highest number of executions and crackdowns on freedom of expression.
Nevertheless, any major and lasting disruption in U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia or Israel would be relatively unprecedented given decades of military, economic, and trade relations tying them together, experts tell TIME. Saudi Arabia has long been a major purchaser of U.S. arms before a 2021 ban on the sale of offensive weapons given the Saudi-led war in Yemen. And in Israel’s case, the U.S. has long provided billions of dollars in military aid to the country. “It wouldn’t be an easy shift. It would require some revolutionary pivot,” Erakat says.
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