Guest Editorials, Opinion

In diplomacy with Saudi Arabia, cheap oil is louder than justice

When President Joe Biden screws up, he deserves to be called out just like any other American president. He had already generated considerable controversy with his hat-in-hand visit to Saudi Arabia during the summer to plead for more oil production to ease pressure on oil prices. The valid question at the time was whether Biden was doing it in a sincere effort to help American motorists or to deprive his Republican critics’ of a major point of attack heading into the fall election season.

Either way, the visit entailed a high-profile meeting with the de facto Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom Biden had promised to hold accountable for the 2018 murder of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The full public extent of Biden’s get-tough accountability gestures consisted of a punishing fist-bump greeting with the crown prince. A full-blown handshake was seen as giving people the wrong idea that things were all cordial and friendly.

The Khashoggi murder occurred inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, where the journalist and contributing columnist for The Washington Post had gone to finish paperwork for his upcoming marriage. His fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, waited outside as Khashoggi entered the consulate. He never emerged. Henchmen who U.S. intelligence concluded were working on the crown prince’s orders killed Khashoggi then dismembered his body, Mafia-style.

Last week, the Biden administration filed a court document stating that the crown prince qualified for immunity in a civil lawsuit by Cengiz regarding Khashoggi’s murder. The U.S. administration wasn’t required to intervene on the Saudi leader’s behalf but chose to do so anyway, citing the fact that the crown prince’s father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, had recently named Mohammed as prime minister, a purely ceremonial title in a country where the king and crown prince have the final say on all matters of government, including who gets to live and who must die.

“Jamal died again today,” Cengiz posted on Twitter, later adding that when it boils down to a question of justice versus money, “money came first.”

Two Democratic U.S. senators went on  talk shows to defend Biden, praising the kingdom’s record as a U.S. strategic ally in opposing Iran and the 80-year friendship that has helped make the United States the beneficiary of low oil prices in exchange for its staunch defense of Saudi Arabia against its regional enemies.

We suspect that the U.S. immunity designation, like most situations in international diplomacy, involved some kind of quid pro quo. Maybe it’s about cheap oil prices, or asking the Saudis to make life difficult for China or Russian leader Vladimir Putin. But as Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan stated, immunity for the crown prince effectively meant granting him a “license to kill.”

The bottom line is that Cengiz is correct: Money came first, not justice.

This editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.