LOS ANGELES — In late February 2021, the Joe Biden administration declassified a document detailing the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s (M.B.S.) involvement in the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi native was an open critic of the regime, fleeing to the United States in 2017 where he was working for The Washington Post before his death in 2018.
This is old news. The report merely revealed information that was leaked and well-known years beforehand: the brutal murder of Khashoggi would not have been possible without the approval of the crown prince. The declassification of the report was largely a symbolic move, much like the general nature of American response to Saudi Arabia and other allies who consistently violate human rights.
Saudi Arabia has long been a country marred by questionable actions, most notably the decade-long war in Yemen. The Yemen Civil War began after the Shiite Houthi rebels overtook the Sunni government’s capital in late 2014. Fearing Houthi links to Iran, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition with other Sunni Gulf states with hopes of restoring power to Yemen’s incumbent government. As the Saudi-led coalition intervened with airstrikes and economic isolation, a full-blown humanitarian crisis emerged. Yemeni civilians faced famine and an endless downpour of strikes, leading to tens of thousands of casualties, thousands of deaths (including those of children), and millions of people displaced. Despite the global concern, during the first five years of the Yemen War, Saudi Arabia was the largest arms importer in the world — and 73% came from the United States. By supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia and other states in the coalition, the United States ultimately fueled a devastating human rights catastrophe.
During his campaign, Biden promised to end support for the Saudi-backed war. So far, his administration has temporarily suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and has revoked Trump’s designation of the Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization. It’s worth noting that these actions do exceed those of previous administrations. However – especially if the arms sales ban is not made permanent – these are mainly emblematic in nature. They signify a reluctance to take hard action and a desire to subdue calls for accountability.
Shortly after these actions were announced, the backtracking ensued. Biden clarified that the crown prince himself would not be penalized, claiming that the diplomatic cost would be too high. Instead, Biden’s aides described a series of travel restrictions on lower-level Saudi officials among other actions, denying giving Saudi Arabia a pass. According to White House officials, instead of reaching out to the crown prince directly, Biden opted for a call to his father, King Salman. During the brief phone call, Biden reportedly raised the idea of recalibrating the U.S.-Saudi relationship. However, approaching the aging king, rather than the prince who appears to be calling the shots, is likely another mechanism to avoid direct accountability.
The United States is not likely to take harsh action against Saudi Arabia, especially against the crown prince himself. Albeit, Biden was correct in highlighting the diplomatic cost of doing so, as Saudi is a critical ally in ensuring Middle East stability and in confronting Iran. Biden faces the unfortunately difficult task of balancing security interests and basic human values. However, it does illuminate America’s double standards when it comes to human rights.
Directly punishing world leaders is not unheard of for the United States. It has imposed sanctions on a handful of world leaders: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Robert Mugabe, the former prime minister of Zimbabwe. Many of these punishments came after various human rights violations among other sources of conflict. However, none of these nations were American allies. In fact, they were the opposite. The unwillingness of the United States to punish M.B.S after a brutal and clear violation of human rights — against a U.S.-based journalist nonetheless — reflects its stance on human rights violators: pursue when convenient.
It’s not as if Saudi violations have not been up to par with other perpetrators. Migrant workers, religious minorities, women, and other vulnerable groups have all faced questionable treatment in Saudi Arabia. Families affected by 9/11 have taken to the courts, seeking accountability from the Saudi kingdom for providing material support to Al-Qaeda after some Saudi officials had been linked to the horrific attacks. Thus, the Khashoggi murder report could not have been the final straw for the U.S. government to finally reconsider relations with Saudi Arabia. It was an opportunistic maneuver to appease human rights activists and fulfill a back-burner campaign promise, which likely would not have even occurred if the United States was still heavily dependent on the Gulf for oil.
The United States has consistently shown that it is a champion of human rights — when convenient. If an American ally commits a crime, whether that be Saudi Arabia or even Israel, the United States usually will not pursue accountability. This is not the era of American isolationism; the United States is not shy in actively involving itself in conflicts around the world.
However, the conflicts it chooses to insert itself in reveal a clear double standard where adversaries are punished and allies go unchecked, even if they have thousands of deaths on their hands.