In a recent call with the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, President Biden struck a tone seldom witnessed in U.S.-Saudi diplomatic dialogue: one of subtle confrontation. During the conversation, Biden “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law” in the wake of an intelligence report directly implicating Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
This recalibration of the U.S.-Saudi relationship marks a sharp break from Donald Trump’s deference toward Saudi Arabia. Even so Biden is taking no direct-action against bin Salman, which has fueled a variety of objections from everyone from Congressional Democrats to exiled Saudi dissidents, like Madawi al-Rasheed. And this is not the first time human rights have been subordinated to safeguarding the American partnership with the Saudis. Despite these objections, Biden is making clear that the U.S. should have both a strategic partnership with the Saudis and work toward human rights. While this position is rare, and it often does not go far enough, it is needed to better match U.S. human rights rhetoric to reality.
The very roots of the American relationship with Saudi Arabia involved the U.S. turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s embrace of enslavement. The enduring image of the Feb 14, 1945, inaugural meeting between the United States and the Saudi Kingdom captures President Franklin D. Roosevelt seated across from King Ibn Saud with Colonel William Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia, on one knee serving as their interpreter.
But this is only one lens through which to see this event. Shortly before Ibn Saud greeted the President, a pair of the King's bodyguards (very likely enslaved people), ornately dressed with scimitars hanging from their waist and jambiyas slung across their chests, led the King across the gangplank onto the USS Quincy amid a throng of saluting sailors. During the four-hour meeting between the President and the King, where the two discussed oil, Palestinian territories and their future partnership, “7-foot tall Nubian slaves” could be found on the opposite deck of the destroyer chatting around an Oriental rug, sipping coffee or posturing for the camera onboard. In many ways, the attention drawn to the heads of state and their dialogue, and not to the enslaved people on the periphery, is a powerful illustration of the compromises the Roosevelt administration was willing to make.