- President Biden spoke with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud last Thursday to discuss several topics, including human rights.
- The relationship began in the 1930s with the Standard Oil Company of California and became more official with government partnership and representation in the 1940s under presidents Roosevelt and Truman.
- President Biden pointed to a couple of human rights violations, specifically during last Thursday’s conversation.
According to the White House Briefing Room, the President spoke with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud last Thursday to discuss several topics, including human rights. While it’s unclear just how much of the conversation focused on this volatile subject, the White House press release clearly discussed this issue.
Perhaps in an effort of diplomacy, President Biden commended several Saudi-American activists’ recent release, along with Ms. Loujain al-Hathloul, from custody. He also affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.
An odd couple
Some relationships seem odd on the surface, and the deeper one digs, the stranger things often get. Have you ever known a person who was in a long-term romantic relationship with someone who consistently did something that most everyone agreed was terrible? Friends and acquaintances of the couple are often left scratching their heads, bewildered by the fact that one stays with the other.
This is how the vast majority of American people view the U.S. government’s relationship with the Saudi Kingdom. They view this relationship as toxic. A Gallup Poll from February of 2019 showed that only four percent of Americans have a “very favorable” view of Saudi Arabia and twenty-five percent have a “somewhat favorable” view.
By comparison, both Venezuela and Cuba are held in higher esteem by the American public.
In February of last year, the Washington Post ran a story stating that “one of our key ideas about the Middle East is wrong.” Technically Saudi Arabia has never been an “ally” of the United States, at least not by specific criteria that’s part and parcel to our relationship with other countries considered to be allies.
For example, the two countries have never signed a formal treaty or a mutual defense pact. The relationship between them has never extended beyond a limited partnership focused on select matters of common special interest. The relationship was initially formed around and has existed over a common interest in one of the world’s most valuable resources, oil.
It began in the 1930s with the Standard Oil Company of California and became more official with government partnership and representation in the 1940s under presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Saudi Arabia cast their lot alongside the Allies in World War II, earning them a spot at the United Nations’ table, although the Kingdom never actually contributed to the war effort.
In the following years, Aramco, the U.S.-owned and operated oil company in Saudi Arabia, propagated the notion of a strong American alliance with the Saudi Kingdom to bolster public relations with American citizens.
The oil industry needed the public to see the Saudis as close partners if they were going to justify sending thousands of American workers to harvest oil out of a desert on the other side of the globe.
Over time, the Saudi government joined in with the oil industry’s effort to promote the idea that America and Saudi Arabia are allies.
Why are they together?
There’s an old saying, “the enemy of your enemy is your friend.” There are multiple examples in the past several decades in which the two nations did work in alliance militarily, but those alliances were short-lived and often strained. During the Cold War, all the way into the first Gulf War in the 1990s, followed by combined efforts in the 2000s, the United States military and its allies relied on strategic locations for air bases and fuel resources from the Saudi Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia also currently stands as one of the U.S. defense industries’ number one foreign customers. It’s a sorted affair, though, considering America’s relationship with Israel, a nation constantly at odds with the Saudi Kingdom. Further complicating matters is the tumultuous relationship with Iran, a country constantly at odds with Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia.
These are just a small sampling of examples pointing to foreign relations’ volatile nature in the Middle East.
But what about human rights violations?
While examples abound, President Biden pointed to a couple of human rights violations, specifically during last Thursday’s conversation. The President mentioned the recent release of several Saudi-American activists and the release of Ms. Loujain al-Hathloul, from custody, all of which are examples of repression of free speech and expression.
Loujain al-Hathloul drew international attention for having been imprisoned for nearly three years because she championed the cause of gaining a woman’s right to drive. Amnesty International’s statement on the egregious nature of government abuse in the Saudi Kingdom from 2019 highlighted a variety of human rights violations, including the following: repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
The force of law has been used in arrests and incarcerations for publicly voicing opinions contrary to government policies. The death penalty has even been used extensively for things that would be considered minor offenses in other parts of the world that value freedom and liberty. For example, many people have been executed in recent years for non-violent drug crimes.
Additionally, women and religious minorities continue to face discrimination and marginalization by the authorities. While some reforms have been made so that women can now obtain passports and travel without a male guardian, they still have to deal with systematic discrimination in law and practice where they are not protected against sexual abuse and domestic violence.
It seems to be the case with many relationships that things aren’t as idealistic or straightforward as people desire them to be. Such is the case in relationships between sovereign nations. People making decisions at the highest level in private industry and government are willing to accept a degree of terrible behavior, even human rights violations of the worst kind, in exchange for economic incentives and strategic military advantages.
Hopefully, President Biden addressing human rights issues in a conversation with the King early in his presidency is a sign that the United States will press its partners for progress in this area. It would be nice to think that improvement is possible in the area of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia because it doesn’t look like this relationship will end anytime soon.
Josh is a faith and culture writer with ThinkCivics. He attended seminary through Rock of Ages Baptist Bible Institute out of Cleveland, TN. He has held about every position one could hold in a local church: Sunday school teacher, Children’s Church Preacher, Bus Ministry Director/Worker, Missions Director, Choir Director, Song Leader, Janitor, etc. In October of 2005, he was ordained as an Assistant Pastor at Rest Haven Baptist Church, and that’s where he served until God called him into the Pastorate at Enon Baptist Church in Alto, GA at the age of 32. He stepped out by faith in obedience to God’s instructions and quickly received a call from Blessed Hope Baptist Church in Free Home, GA where he now serves as Pastor. In his free time, Josh enjoys spending quality time with his wife (who is his high school sweetheart) and three children: Zoey, Ava, and Jack, as well as reading, writing, hunting, cooking, weight lifting, and martial arts.