President Biden’s formally announced plan to visit Saudi Arabia next month is a dramatic reversal of earlier promises to treat the Arab nation as a “pariah” in light of its repeated human rights violations. Calls are growing for Biden to hold the Saudi government accountable for the brutal murder and dismemberment of American resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But as he faces domestic anger over rising fuel prices, Biden seems to have declining leverage with one of the most oil-rich countries in the world and the top weapons client for the U.S. “The Biden administration has succumbed to the pressures of defense industries and the foreign government lobbyists to continue what are very profitable arms sales,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, founded by Khashoggi.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
The White House has formally announced that President Biden will visit Saudi Arabia next month, as well as Israel and the occupied West Bank. Biden is expected to meet with both Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As a candidate on the campaign trail, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a pariah, following the brutal assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
JOE BIDEN: And I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.
AMY GOODMAN: But Biden has taken a different stance in recent months as global gas prices soared. His talks in Saudi Arabia are expected to focus on oil production, the war in Yemen and other regional issues.
For more, we’re joined by Sarah Leah Whitson, lawyer for Khashoggi’s fiancée in a lawsuit against the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder, his dismemberment in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. She’s executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, which Jamal Khashoggi founded.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! We only have five minutes, Sarah Leah, but I’m wondering if you can respond to this just complete reversal of President Biden, from saying they’re pariahs to going to meet with them.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: It’s a very dramatic capitulation to a very clear red line that President Biden had announced, perhaps off the cuff, but I think it is in response to a massive amount of pressure from the defense industry lobbies, from the Israeli, Saudi and Emirati lobbies, and the confluence of the war in Ukraine that has driven up oil prices, all of which have resulted in pressuring President Biden to do what he clearly didn’t want to do, which is go and kiss the ring of Mohammed bin Salman.
I also want to note that the notion of whether or not Biden is going to meet with Mohammed bin Salman is a bit of a red herring, because the real concession here, what the Saudis and Emiratis have been demanding in order to continue to purchase American weapons, is a security agreement, a defense agreement, that will commit U.S. troops to defending the Saudi and Emirati monarchies. That is what President Biden is going to deliver in Riyadh. That is what we should all be very worried about.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the continuing massive weapon sales under the Biden administration, not only to Saudi Arabia, but to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, as well?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I mean, the truth is in the pudding. Despite the promise from President Biden that you just heard, that he would end weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, it was very clear from the beginning of the administration that that was not going to happen. Saudi Arabia is America’s largest weapons client. It is the largest weapons client in the world. And number two behind it is the UAE. Everybody knows what the right thing to do is, and that is to end weapon sales to these heinous governments, given their atrocious war crimes for six years in Yemen.
But, ultimately, the Biden administration has succumbed to the pressures of the defense industries and the foreign government lobbyists to continue what are very profitable arms sales for the defense industry. Certainly, this doesn’t suit or serve the interests of the American people, but it very much serves the interests of major donors to the Democratic Party, major donors to the Biden administration, and that is the lobbyists that represent the defense industries and the foreign governments.
AMY GOODMAN: I was watching John Kirby, the spokesperson for the Pentagon, questioned about whether he’ll raise human rights, and he said, “Well, he does do that kind of thing. We kind of expect he will.” But what about — for example, is there pressure being brought to end your lawsuit on behalf of Khashoggi’s fiancée for the dismemberment of Khashoggi, the murder of Khashoggi? And we’re not only talking about one man here; also, the dismemberment of Yemen, the atrocity that is one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the world, with U.S. weapons-backed Saudi Arabia bombing of Yemen.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, just to be clear, the lawsuit is a lawsuit that DAWN has brought in its own capacity, and Hatice Cengiz, Jamal’s widow, is our co-plaintiff. We are joining together in this lawsuit for the murder and torture of Jamal Khashoggi. And we know that Mohammed bin Salman has demanded that the Biden administration interfere in our lawsuit to grant him immunity. That’s not going happen. It hasn’t happened so far. But if he ascends to become king, he will have sovereign immunity. The other defendants in the lawsuit will remain. And we are waiting for a verdict from the court on their motion to dismiss our lawsuit. We intend to prevail. We hope we will prevail.
I should note that today we will be commemorating the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Mohammed bin Salman by unveiling a new street sign in front of the Saudi Embassy at 1 p.m. That, I think, is the most important act of commemoration and accountability that exists to date, a permanent street sign in front of the Saudi Embassy reminding them and reminding the whole world who was responsible for this heinous crime.
Very happy to see a truce in Yemen, but, let’s face it, this is a face-saving exit for the Saudi government from their catastrophic, futile war that has caused nothing but destruction and brought zero gain, even for the Saudis’ nefarious plot to contain and control Yemen.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the Saudi Arabian Embassy will be on Jamal Khashoggi Way?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: That’s right. The new address of the Saudi Embassy — and we hope Google will adjust its maps to reflect that — is officially now Jamal Khashoggi Way. That is designated by the Washington, D.C., City Council, which unanimously approved —
AMY GOODMAN: Three seconds.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: — our efforts to redesignate the street. And we hope you all watch the unveiling of the street sign today at 1 p.m. on DAWN’s Facebook page.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, we want to thank you for being with us, of DAWN. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.