A Human Rights Foreign Policy Demands Dumping the Saudis

By Rishab Chatty

Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud meets General Martin Dempsey in 2014. 
Image Credit: Myles Cullen/DVIDS

“The United States is committed to a world in which human rights are protected, their defenders are celebrated, and those who commit human rights abuses are held accountable.”

On February 24, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a press statement reaffirming the United States’ commitment to human rights in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. 

The Biden administration’s dedication to this statement has been lackluster, to say the least. This assertion is proved best by the United States’ continued close partnership with Saudi Arabia. Despite its apathetic approach to human rights, the House of Saud continues to enjoy regular arms sale deals and close trade ties with Washington. This relationship only undermines America’s stature as a righteous world leader. 

Biden deceptively seemed to adhere to his commitment to human rights in February 2021, when he announced that the United States would no longer support the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen. He conceded that the U.S. would continue to defend Saudi Arabia against Iran-backed threats, but ended the provision of logistical and military support for the Saudi-led coalition. 

Within a month, however, the United States’ sympathetic stance towards the Saudis began to shine through. Biden refused to punish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite overwhelming intelligence incriminating the crown prince. 

According to Grant Liberty, a human rights organization based in the United Kingdom, “twice as many harsh sentences had been meted out to Saudi prisoners of conscience in April than in the first three months of this year combined,” a direct result of the U.S. decision not to impose sanctions on MBS.

On November 4, 2021, President Biden approved a $650 million sale of air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia in a complete reversal of his February announcement. This comes not long after the administration announced a $500 million contract with Saudi Arabia in September, providing the Arab nation with military support and maintenance of its Apache and Black Hawk attack helicopters. 

These helicopters are the same as those notorious for their use against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, incentivizing Saudi Arabia to maintain its offensive in the proxy war against Iran and inevitably continuing the slaughter of thousands of Yemeni civilians in the horrific ongoing humanitarian situation there. 

According to the 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA), the United States may only export arms and defense services to friendly countries for “internal security” or “legitimate self-defense.” In recent years however, U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia seem unlikely to fit that narrative. 

Between 2015 and 2019, 73% of Saudi arms imports were provided by the United States for a total value over $64.1 billion. This included a 2019 $8.1 billion emergency deal supposedly intended to counter Iranian aggression. 

Over the same time period, over 18,000 Yemeni civilians were killed or injured by the Saudi coalition’s airstrikes. As if this disregard for human life wasn’t enough, the coalition has maintained both aerial and naval blockades around Yemen, impeding humanitarian aid efforts and exacerbating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. 

In fact, the civilian casualties are just the tip of the iceberg in regards to the human rights violations that can be attributed to Saudi Arabia. The regime was reportedly responsible for 40 executions between January and July 2021 alone, up from the 27 executions it carried out in 2020.

Many of these were the result of exceptionally unfair trials, including the execution of Mustafa Hashem al-Darwish, a 26 year old man who attended anti-government protests at the age of 17. 

Saudi Arabia also notoriously detains activists, journalists and dissidents, subjecting them to “enforced disappearances” and torture. Freedom of speech, press, and religion are virtually nonexistent and violations of due process are normative practices. In addition, despite numerous reforms in women’s rights issues, women are still required to obtain male permission for marriage, some healthcare, and to leave prison.

These disturbing infractions have not gone unnoticed by Congress. Just a day before the announcement of the arms sale, Senator Robert Mendenez (D-NJ) introduced S.3155, “A bill to impose sanctions with respect to individuals responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, to protect human rights in the sale, export, and transfer of defense articles and defense services to Saudi Arabia, and for other purposes.” 

Representative Greogory Meeks (D-NY) offered an amendment to H.R. 4350, which calls for “the suspension of U.S. sustainment and maintenance support to Saudi air force units” and reinforces the American commitment to protecting human rights.

If implemented, these policies would not only be instrumental in forcing MBS and his regime to move towards upholding human rights, but would also reinforce Biden’s commitment to American values and the United States’ soft power as a world leader. 

A 2018 Pew Research study found that only 31% of Americans believe that promoting human rights should be a priority in U.S. foreign policy. Yet, the preservation of life, liberty, and property is the foundation of what are considered to be American values. 

If the universal perception of the United States’ role in the international system is to be improved, it is imperative America holds itself to a higher standard. 

Rishab Chatty is a regular writer for the Realist Review. He majors in Global Studies and Political Science at Arizona State University.

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