The senators likened Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Russian President Vladimir Putin for “ignoring basic human rights and American interests,” and said that “shifting our dependence from one autocratic leader to another, particularly because of our addiction to fossil fuels, will not solve the problem.”
In their letter, the senators added, “We cannot allow Mohammed bin Salman to believe that he can rule with impunity,” and urged Biden to pursue the following commitments in his meetings in Saudi Arabia:
The letter was signed by Senator Jeff Merkley, Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Richard Blumenthal, and the full text of the letter is as follows:
Mr. President, we are writing to express our concerns about your trip to Saudi Arabia in July. As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues his relentless campaign against dissidents, we strongly urge you to at least put human rights at the center of your meetings.
While we find any interaction with Mohammed bin Salman deeply disturbing, we are aware that the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine had far-reaching repercussions. Global food shortages have exacerbated protracted humanitarian crises and could fuel further conflict. Gas prices have risen to historic highs, and Americans are suffering as a result of our dependence on foreign oil. This is the time when the United States needs to work constructively with as many global partners as possible.
Against this backdrop, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s recent comments seem correct (running a country often involves making difficult choices). But the choice in the wake of Russia’s authoritarian assault on democracy must be clear. For the United States to achieve long-term national security, we must reduce our dependence on corrupt and ruthless autocrats, and be no more beholden to them. Autocrats, willing to violate international norms and laws, cannot be expected to stabilize the international system. Shifting our dependence from one autocratic leader to another, most notably because of our addiction to fossil fuels, will not solve the problem.
Like Putin, Mohammed bin Salman has shown a blatant disregard for basic American rights and interests, even as he has taken some positive steps toward peace in the region with the armistice in Yemen and an end to the boycott of Qatar. The horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which Mohammed bin Salman himself ordered, according to US intelligence agencies, is but the most notorious and egregious manifestation of a regime that routinely intimidates, monitors and harasss opponents at home and abroad. In January 2022, the FBI highlighted how the Kingdom targets Saudi dissidents located inside the United States, a flagrant violation of our national sovereignty. In a recent report by Freedom House, Saudi dissidents in the United States noted that the decision not to punish Mohammed bin Salman for his role in Khashoggi’s murder had a chilling effect. The Saudi government’s reaction seemed to be that it could do whatever it wanted as long as there were no consequences.
At the same time as it suppresses its innocent citizens abroad, the Saudi government is actively helping Saudi criminals abroad to evade justice. Last year, the FBI concluded that Saudi government officials are certainly helping US-based Saudi citizens flee the US to avoid legal trouble, undermining the US judicial process.
These flagrant violations of US law and sovereignty are not victimless crimes. A 2019 investigation found more than 20 cases of Saudi students studying in the United States who disappeared while facing charges of premeditated murder, sexual offenses and other criminal charges. In one tragic example, the Saudi government helped deport a Saudi student who had obtained an illegal passport and traveled on a private jet weeks before he was to be tried in Oregon on charges of hitting a 15-year-old and fleeing the scene.
Saudi Arabia is also helping other repressive states extend their long authoritarian arm. In violation of the principle of non-refoulement in international law, Saudi authorities have coordinated with the Chinese government to return Uyghur Muslims to China where they are at risk of torture. Recently, two Uyghur men who traveled to Mecca to perform the Hajj pilgrimage were in prison without charge or trial and were said to be deported soon. In recent years, the Saudi authorities have shown their support for the genocidal policies of the Chinese government in the Xinjiang region against the Uyghurs.
Extraterritorial tactics of repression coincided with continued brutality at home. On March 22, after unfair trials lacking due process, the Saudi government beheaded 81 people, including 41 from the underprivileged Shiite minority, in the country’s largest mass execution in modern history. For those who avoid the death penalty, many continue to be subjected to horrific torture behind bars. Despite the release of several prominent dissidents in early 2021, these activists are still subject to arbitrary travel bans and threatened to return to prison if they speak out.
We cannot allow Mohammed bin Salman to believe that he can rule with impunity, and we urge you to follow through on the following commitments in your meeting:
Release the dissidents mentioned in the US State Department’s report on Saudi Arabia on human rights practices, or at least provide compelling evidence of crimes.
Bring perpetrators of torture against prisoners to justice
Lift arbitrary travel bans on human rights defenders and others, including those imposed on US citizens
Ending illegal state surveillance and hostage-taking and other forms of transnational repression, especially on US soil
Not helping Saudi nationals facing criminal charges abroad to evade justice
Ending the guardianship of a man over a woman
Imposing a moratorium on executions
Maintaining the ceasefire in Yemen