Biden’s Embrace of Arab Autocrats Ends Hopes for Democracy in the Middle East

During the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, President Biden notably pledged to protect democracy and human rights in the Middle East and beyond. However, his recent mid-July visit to Saudi Arabia and his meetings in Jeddah with several Arab autocrats tell a different story. Not only has Biden betrayed the promise he made during his presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” but his widely publicized fist bump with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)—whose hands are stained with the blood of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi—sent a clear message to the world’s authoritarian leaders that the US is willing to forgive and forget when it comes to human rights violations as long as it can still remain friends with its bloody-minded allies. Biden’s choice to sacrifice his commitment to upholding democracy and human rights and to instead focus on regional and global stability and on political wins at home is a significant stain on his presidency, and will adversely impact US interests in the region for years to come.

Promises Left Unfulfilled

In October 2021, President Biden released a statement regarding the United States’ election to the United Nations Human Rights Council, in which he again stressed that his administration would both defend and promote human rights around the world. Biden boldly said that defending human rights is “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.” And in December 2021, the Biden Administration announced the establishment of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, the aim of which is to “bolster democracy and defend human rights globally.”

Despite President Biden’s repeated promises, since taking office in January 2021 his administration has failed to turn words into actions, particularly when it comes to the Middle East.

However, despite President Biden’s repeated promises, since taking office in January 2021 his administration has failed to turn words into actions, particularly when it comes to the Middle East. Not only has the Biden Administration willfully ignored gross human rights violations in the region—and in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in particular—but it has also wholeheartedly embraced the region’s dictators, warts and all. President Biden’s meeting with MBS was exemplary of his obsequious relationship with Middle East leaders. His willingness to sit down and beg for an increase in oil production from the man who, according to the CIA, ordered the October 2018 killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul and who is now the de facto ruler of a country that is essentially run as a private business and that quickly crushes any whiff of political reform shows that the president’s avowed commitment to human rights and democracy has gone right out the window.

President Biden also met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi during his visit to Jeddah. During his campaign, Biden tweeted that there would be “no more blank checks” for Sisi, who presides over one of the most notorious and repressive regimes in the region, and who is responsible for jailing thousands of political prisoners, activists, journalists, and human rights advocates, many of whom have been languishing in prison for years without ever having stood trial for the crimes they supposedly committed. In addition, Biden met with Emirati leader Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), who played a key role in destroying prospects for democratic change in the region following the Arab Spring and whose country has one of the worst human rights records in the Gulf.

Back to Business with Saudi Arabia

Biden did initially work to shun Saudi Arabia during his first year in office, but his approach mostly served to alienate his administration from MBS. However, the Russian war on Ukraine and the economic turmoil it has caused, particularly in the global oil market, forced Biden to change his calculations regarding his stance on MBS and Saudi Arabia. At first, President Biden attempted to pressure the kingdom to increase its oil production in order to lower rapidly rising gas prices in the US. He sent senior members of his administration to Riyadh to appeal to MBS to increase production, but MBS refused, clearly aiming for a meeting with Biden himself instead.

Before his July 2022 visit to the region, President Biden claimed that he was not traveling to Saudi Arabia to meet with MBS, but rather that the two would meet as part of a more general “international meeting.” He then published an op-ed in the Washington Post defending his visit and attempting to lay out the case for re-engagement with the kingdom, claiming that the aim of his visit was “to reorient—but not rupture—relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years.” Despite Biden’s proclaimed intention to avoid meeting directly with MBS, the two leaders did indeed meet and discussed several issues. In his remarks following his meetings in Saudi Arabia, Biden stated, “I just finished more than two hours of meetings with Saudi leadership here in Jeddah, meeting with the King for about a little over half an hour, a working session with the Crown Prince and all the ministers…from the energy minister to the sports minister, all the way down the line.”

Despite Biden’s proclaimed intention to avoid meeting directly with MBS, the two leaders did indeed meet and discussed several issues.

Such an agenda conveys the sense that Biden has long forgotten his intention to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah.” However, the president did assert that he confronted MBS on the killing of Khashoggi, saying, “I was straightforward and direct in discussing it. I made my view crystal clear…I’ll always stand up for our values.” But Saudi officials challenged President Biden’s account of his having confronted MBS over the killing. ​Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said in an interview that he “didn’t hear” Biden tell MBS that he directly blamed him for the killing. President Biden, in turn, accused al-Jubeir of lying. Regardless of what was or was not said, the mere fact that Biden met with MBS was a betrayal of the many promises he has made on this score.

While some pundits have defended President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia and consider it a sign of political pragmatism, others have argued that the trip harmed US interests and credibility in the region and beyond. In fact, Biden’s participation in the political rehabilitation of MBS sends the wrong message to dictators across the world, essentially assuring them that they can continue their human rights abuses without suffering any consequences.

Cozying Up to Trump’s Favorite Dictator

During his presidential campaign, Biden was critical of the human rights situation in Egypt, and of former President Donald Trump’s approach to dealing with Sisi’s regime. However, after taking office Biden quickly reversed course, cozying up to Sisi and returning to business as usual with the Egyptian leader’s military regime. President Biden has continued to ignore Egypt’s horrible human rights violations, and has provided Sisi’s regime with both economic and military support.

Sisi has been eagerly trying to meet with Biden over the past 18 months in order to bolster his shaky legitimacy and to improve Egypt’s bilateral relationship with the United States. He attempted to arrange a meeting with Biden during the 2021 session of the UN General Assembly in New York, but was ultimately unsuccessful. The two leaders therefore did not meet until the July summit in Jeddah. During their meeting, Biden and Sisi discussed several issues, including food security, Russia’s war on Ukraine, climate change, and ongoing regional tensions regarding the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The two leaders also “expressed their intention to meet again in the near future to further enhance the two countries’ multi-faceted partnership.”

A few days after his meeting with Sisi, President Biden began to deliver on his commitment to this “partnership” with the Egyptian regime, dispatching Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer to Egypt, the UAE, and Ethiopia in order to “provide US support toward forging a diplomatic resolution” to the dispute over the GERD. Cairo sees Biden’s support of Sisi as signaling a return to normalcy in the relationship between the two countries. And another sign of renewed ties came on July 27, when, according to the Egyptian government, Biden extended an invitation for Sisi to visit Washington to participate in the upcoming US-Africa Leaders Summit.

Cairo sees Biden’s support of Sisi as signaling a return to normalcy in the relationship between the two countries.

Although Biden and Sisi discussed the matter of human rights during their meeting in Jeddah, Biden failed to secure any commitment from Sisi to respect human rights or to release his country’s political prisoners, who number in the thousands. What makes Biden’s position on Egypt even more ironic is the fact that his own State Department’s most recent report on human rights condemned Egypt’s horrible record in this regard. Meanwhile, the New York Times published an in-depth report into the country’s extensive use of forced disappearances, illegal detentions, and torture on the very same day that President Biden met with Sisi during the Jeddah Summit.

Biden and MBZ

In July 2021 the US Department of Justice charged three individuals with engaging in “unlawful efforts to advance the interests of the United Arab Emirates,” one of whom was Thomas Barrack, an informal advisor to former President Trump. According to the statement, “The defendants repeatedly capitalized on Barrack’s friendships and access to a candidate who was eventually elected President, high-ranking campaign and government officials, and the American media to advance the policy goals of a foreign government without disclosing their true allegiances.” However, this high-profile case did not seem to impact the Biden Administration’s approach to relations with the UAE.

Just as he did with Egyptian and Saudi leaders at the beginning of his presidency, Biden avoided contacting Emirati leader Mohammed Bin Zayed upon taking office in 2021. This was seen by observers as a sign of Biden’s dissatisfaction with MBZ’s regional policies, and particularly with his country’s involvement in the conflict in Yemen. However, after the Russian war on Ukraine raised oil prices globally and in the US, President Biden suddenly adopted a more conciliatory tone regarding MBZ and the UAE. In May 2022, President Biden sent a delegation of high-ranking members of his administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to the UAE. While the visit was officially intended to offer condolences following the death of former UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, it was clear that the real goal of the trip was an effort to improve the Biden Administration’s relationship with Abu Dhabi.

The Biden-MBZ statement completely ignored the UAE’s terrible record on human rights and its subversive role in the region, and instead stressed the existence of historical ties between the two countries.

President Biden subsequently met with MBZ during the Jeddah Summit in July. According to a joint statement released following the meeting, the two leaders affirmed their “commitment to deepening the extensive security cooperation that has made both countries safer and been a major contributor to regional peace and stability.” The statement completely ignored the UAE’s terrible record on human rights and its subversive role in the region, and instead stressed the existence of historical ties between the two countries. President Biden attempted to build on this opening by extending an invitation to MBZ to visit the US in the fall. But perhaps not surprisingly, on the same day as Biden’s meeting with MBZ, Emirati authorities arrested and detained US citizen and former lawyer for Jamal Khashoggi, Asim Ghafoor, and sentenced him to three years in prison on questionable charges of money laundering. Regardless, on August 2 the Biden Administration approved massive arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to help the two countries counter Iranian threats. Again, Biden appeared content to remain silent on human rights violations—even those committed against US citizens—in return for regional security cooperation.

Damaging US Interests

President Biden’s July visit to Saudi Arabia and his meetings with various Arab dictators ultimately render irrelevant the lingering debate over whether the Biden Administration will act according to its declared values or to US interests. Ironically, despite Biden’s having apparently sacrificed the values he once claimed to hold so dear, the visit still failed to achieve his goals, especially that of curbing oil prices, which remain high despite Saudi promises to increase production. More importantly, Biden’s embrace of Arab authoritarians will only embolden and encourage them to commit even more human rights violations. Letting these violations continue to pass without objection will further damage the United States’ image and credibility in the region, to say nothing of its interests. Indeed, it appears that democracy and human rights in the Middle East have ultimately failed to find a champion in the Biden Administration.