Northeastern professors lay out Saudi Arabia’s ‘dismal human rights record’ after Biden’s trip to the kingdom

older man wearing blue suit fist bumping man wearing traditional arabic dress
In this image released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP

President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this month and his fist bump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman drew criticism due to the country’s litany of human rights abuses. However, one Northeastern University professor says the commander-in-chief’s visit does not indicate he is resigned to a completely amicable relationship with the Middle Eastern nation.

As Northeastern assistant teaching professor of political science Dr. Julie Garey explains, the United States is constantly reevaluating its relationships with many countries, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which it has maintained a longstanding alliance with, is no exception. 

The director of Northeastern’s Security and Resilience Studies program does not view Biden’s visit to the nation as a sign the Democratic president’s administration “has resigned itself to maintaining close, friendly relations with the kingdom, or, on the other hand, destructively adversarial relations.”

Portraits of Northeastern assistant teaching professor of political science Dr. Julie Garey and Northeastern political science professor Max Abrahms. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“President Biden by his own words has a long list of issues on which he is hoping to make progress, but I don’t interpret this to mean that he has suddenly reversed course on believing that there are many challenges within Saudi Arabia and challenges between the two countries,” Garey says.

Those who opposed Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia did so out of concern over several issues, including the country’s “dismal human rights record,” according to Garey, who specializes in international relations, U.S. foreign policy and national security, and international organizations. Critics of the president’s trip pointed out the kingdom’s prominent role in the war in Yemen, which has led to widespread famine, suffering and death, its history of harboring terrorist organizations, and concern about growing Chinese influence in the region, the professor says.

The gruesome murder of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 is another major reason why people criticized Biden’s visit to the country, as the CIA concluded four years ago that the crown prince ordered the assassination, despite his claims otherwise.

In a statement last week, the White House said Biden brought up the murder of Khashoggi during a meeting with the crown prince and received commitments from the country “with respect to reforms and institutional safeguards in place to guard against any such conduct in the future.” Biden also said the crown prince told him that “he was not personally responsible” for Khashoggi’s murder. The president told reporters that he pushed back on this claim. 

When asked whether the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia undermines the credibility of the U.S. on the world stage, Garey says that to some countries and foreign leaders, the alliance reflects poorly.

“This is especially true of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors who have adversarial relationships with the kingdom,” she notes. “Although many other democratic countries maintain relations with KSA as well, they too likely find it paradoxical and at times hypocritical that the Biden administration, who considers itself a champion of human rights and democratic values, would travel to Saudi Arabia and engage in talks with the crown prince.”

Northeastern political science professor Max Abrahms, an expert in international security, particularly in the areas of terrorism, counterterrorism, and United States foreign policy, points out that Saudi Arabia’s “unsavory” geopolitical track record is no secret and has been well-known for quite some time.

“Saudi Arabia is what Saudi Arabia is: It is an illiberal country, and everyone knows that,” he says. “Well beyond the killing of [Jamal Khashoggi], Saudi Arabia is quite tyrannical with dissidents in its own country. Saudi Arabia has oftentimes used indiscriminate violence against Yemen, contributing to, arguably, the biggest humanitarian disaster in the world. Frankly, Saudi Arabia was implicated in the 9/11 attacks.”

Abrahms notes there has always been a disconnect between the stated ideals of the United States and its conduct around the world, and Saudi Arabia is no exception. Beyond the kingdom, the U.S. has allied itself with illiberal regimes throughout history.

“At least, that certainly has been true in modern American history since becoming a true global actor in the 20th century,” Abrahms says.

On this disconnect, Abrahms explains that there are two major schools of thought in the field of international relations about how countries ought to conduct themselves: Liberalism emphasizes that nations should act morally and only align themselves with nations that act morally, while realism asserts that countries should act in their best interests, even if that means aligning themselves with countries that are illiberal. 

The liberal school of thought is critical of the United States allying with Saudi Arabia, while realists emphasize the kingdom is an “indispensable” partner in counterbalancing Iran, an adversary to the U.S. that poses a potential nuclear threat, according to Abrahms.

Additionally, because gas prices skyrocketed even higher after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in the eyes of realists, there is a “national security imperative” for the United States to seek out more affordable energy from Saudi Arabia, even if it’s not green, Abrahms says.

“Despite American interests in going green, the reality is that our economy still runs on oil, and the Saudis export a lot of it, and the American economy is not doing well right now. Inflation is very high, and energy prices are through the roof,” he explains. “So, it makes perfect sense for the president to try to do everything on the global stage to make economic life easier for Americans.”

Another purported reason for the United States’ close relationship with Saudi Arabia is its concern for the stability of the Middle East region and its many states, according to Garey.

“I think the United States will, at least for the foreseeable future, always see itself as having interests in the Middle East. I think it will also continue to seek multiple avenues for protecting, maintaining and advancing those interests,” Garey says.

“A U.S.-Saudi relationship may be one asset in American policymakers’ toolbox now, but there is no way diplomats and policymakers think it is the only one, nor do they believe any asset is perfect or will always be beneficial. The most important thing is that the U.S. takes as thoughtful and deliberate an approach to each state as it can,” she adds.

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