A Saudi prince has been accused of modern-day slavery by maids in his apartment outside Paris

A Saudi Arabian flag in the wind against clear sky in the Al Madinah Province, Yanbu, Saudi Arabia on December 26, 2019.
A Saudi Arabian flag in the wind against clear sky in the Al Madinah Province, Yanbu, Saudi Arabia on December 26, 2019.

  • French prosecutors have launched a human trafficking investigation into allegations against a Saudi prince.
  • Seven women who used to work for the prince say they were forced to work in modern-day slavery conditions.
  • The women worked for the prince’s family between 2008 and 2015 in both Saudi Arabia and a suburb of Paris.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A Saudi Arabian prince has been accused of carrying out acts of modern-day slavery by seven women who worked as maids in his apartment outside Paris.

French prosecutors have launched a human trafficking investigation into the allegations, the prosecutors’ office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre told AFP.

A source told AFP that the women, who are mostly from the Philippines, said they were recruited in Saudi Arabia and worked for the prince’s family between 2008 and 2015 in both Saudi Arabia and in the Neuilly-sur-Seine suburb of Paris.

The women, who escaped employment while on a trip in France and filed a complaint in 2019, told investigators they were required to sleep on the floor, worked almost nonstop, and went hungry because they had little time to eat, according to French publication RFI.

The Saudi prince involved in the allegations has not been publicly named.

Prosecutors heard testimony from the former employees last month, but the prince has not been questioned, a source told AFP.

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Google urged to halt cloud-computing project in Saudi Arabia over human rights concerns

Dakar Rally organizers stand in front of a screen displaying images of Saudi King Salman, right, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during a presentation in Dakar village, in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020.

  • In December 2020, Google announced it would build a cloud-computing center in Saudi Arabia.
  • Critics fear that could allow Saudi authorities to more easily access user data.
  • Human rights groups are calling on Google to halt work on the project.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A Silicon Valley tech giant could end up enabling one of the world’s worst human rights abusers to better spy on its citizens, human rights campaigners said Wednesday.

When Google announced last year that it had finalized an agreement to build a major new cloud-computing center in Saudi Arabia, the company said the move would allow businesses there to “confidently grow and scale their offerings in this market.”

The company opened the first such centers, known as Google Cloud regions, in 2020, starting with the US, Indonesia, and South Korea. It also announced plans to open them in Spain, France, Italy, and Qatar.

But in a statement, critics said that setting up shop in Saudi Arabia could end up bringing more than just faster data transfer speeds to its clients, including Saudi Aramco, a state-owned oil company.

“In a country where dissidents are arrested, jailed for their expression and tortured for their work – Google’s plan could give the Saudi authorities even greater powers to infiltrate networks and gain access to data on peaceful activists and any individual expressing a dissenting opinion in the Kingdom,” Rasha Abdul Rahim, director of Amnesty Tech, said in a press release.

The backlash underscores the difficulties Google faces in its aggressive pursuit of cloud computing, as the push into more markets risks tangling the company up in geopolitical quandaries.

The communique, signed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others, calls on Google to “immediately halt” work on the project until the company “can publicly demonstrate how it will mitigate adverse human rights impacts.”

The stated fear among campaigners is not that Google will directly assist Saudi authorities’ attempts to silence dissent, but that those authorities have shown no qualms about infiltrating technology companies – and demanding that they hand over user data. In at least one case, the Saudi government appears to have placed spies within a US social media company, Twitter, to obtain information it could not get through legal means.

The US State Department, in a 2020 human rights report, noted that Saudi authorities “frequently attempted to identify and detain anonymous or pseudonymous users and writers who made critical or controversial remarks.” The Saudi government “regularly surveilled websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages,” the report noted, and a counter-terrorism law grants authorities the right to circumvent legal protections to access someone’s “private communications.”

Saudi Arabia is also a world leader when it comes to beheading citizens it deems enemies of the kingdom. Its top officials also orchestrated the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, using spyware to keep tabs on the dissident and his friends, according to a lawsuit.

Campaigners want Google to come out and set “red lines” concerning requests from the Saudi government with which it will refuse to comply. It also wants Google to elaborate on the specifics of the independent human rights assessment the company said it conducted.

“We are saying they should not have any cloud region in Saudi Arabia, unless and until there has been a robust and thorough human rights due diligence process,” Michael Kleinman, director of Amnesty International’s Silicon Valley initiative, told Insider.

In 2018, after employee backlash over a cloud contract with the Department of Defense, Google published a set of principles around AI that included a commitment to not design or deploy AI that “contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.”

But as Google races to catch Microsoft and Amazon in the cloud wars, deals with some governments risk backlash both inside and outside the company. Earlier this month, some Google employees called on the company to terminate contracts with the Israeli government due to the deadly attacks on Palestinians in Gaza.

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com.

Have a tip about Google? Contact Hugh Langley securely using the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (+1-628-228-1836) or encrypted email (hslangley@protonmail.com

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House votes 350-71 passing legislation limiting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, in response to 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi

People hold posters picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and lightened candles during a gathering outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018.

  • The US House of representatives voted 350-71 to pass a measure that would restrict US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
  • This bill is in part in response to the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US House of representatives voted 350-71 to pass a measure that would restrict US arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act of 2021 was reintroduced by Rep. Gerry Conolly in February, after President Joe Biden promised a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia than his predecessor, as well as a “recalibration” of the bilateral relationship.

The bill would hold the White House accountable for providing reports to Congress about the repression of dissidents and journalists in Saudi Arabia. The bill would also include a 120 day halt of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, with the potential for that ban to be extended for three years.

The bill allows for the White House to circumvent the arms sale ban if it confirms to Congress that Saudi Arabia is “not violating the human rights of dissidents or detainees.”

The Senate will vote on the bill next.

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Biden promised a foreign policy centered on human rights, but is continuing Trump-era policies and practices

President Joe Biden

  • Biden is upholding Trump-era policies on issues like refugee admissions and arms sales.
  • Progressives and advocacy groups say Biden is violating his pledge to prioritize human rights.
  • AOC called Biden’s decision to uphold Trump’s refugee cap “completely and utterly unacceptable.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

President Joe Biden promised that his foreign policy would mark a major departure from former President Donald Trump, pledging to put human rights and democracy at the center of his approach to global affairs. But on issues ranging from US relations with Gulf states to refugees, Biden is continuing many of Trump’s most divisive and controversial policies and practices – and both progressives in Congress and advocacy groups are not happy.

Trump repeatedly demonized refugees, painting them as a threat to the US, and his administration set the lowest ever cap on refugee admissions for the 2021 fiscal year. On the campaign trail and in the early weeks of his presidency, Biden vowed to reverse that trend and lambasted Trump over his xenophobic refugee policy.

“We used to allow refugees – 125,000 refugees in the United States in a yearly basis,” Biden said during a CNN town hall in February. “It was as high as 250,000. Trump cut it to 5,000. Come with me into Sierra Leone. Come with me into parts of Lebanon. Come with me around the world and see people piled up in camps, kids dying, no way out, refugees fleeing from persecution. We, the United States, used to do our part. We were part of that. We were – and, you know, that’s – you know, ‘send me your huddled masses.’ Come on.”

But the president is now walking back on a promise to open America’s doors to 62,500 refugees this fiscal year, and is keeping Trump’s historically low cap of 15,000 in place, per a directive the president issued on Friday.

Biden is also moving to speed up admissions and change the regional allocation of refugees, ending a Trump policy that effectively disqualified most refugees from African and Muslim-majority countries.

The president’s decision-making on this has seemingly been influenced by Republican criticism over his administration’s handling of a historic number of migrant arrivals at the US-Mexico border in recent months. GOP leaders have referred to the surge as a “crisis,” blaming it on by Biden’s more welcoming immigration messaging.

Human rights groups, refugee advocates, and some congressional Democrats ripped into Biden’s decision to retain Trump’s refugee cap.

“Completely and utterly unacceptable,” said Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise. Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, [including] the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong. Keep your promise.”

Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state said Biden has “broken his promise to restore our humanity.”

“This is incredibly disappointing. The U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world and we can’t do better?” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, tweeted on Friday.

Joanne Lin, the National Director of Advocacy and Government Relations at Amnesty International, in a statement said Biden is “turning his back on tens of thousands of refugees around the world who have been approved to come to the United States.”

“Biden had the opportunity to fulfill his campaign pledge and to deliver on his promises to protect the rights of and well-being of refugees, to place human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy, and to restore U.S. global leadership. He squandered that opportunity today,” Lin added.

Biden’s human rights problem

MBS Biden
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) and President Joe Biden (R.)

Beyond the decision on refugees, Biden already had a big week when it comes to foreign policy. The president announced he’s pulling all remaining US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, bringing an end to the longest conflict in US history. He slapped new sanctions on Russia and called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to deescalate tensions amid a massive troop buildup along Ukraine’s borders. Meanwhile, US officials participated in indirect talks with Iranian officials in Vienna aimed at restoring the Iran nuclear deal.

Less than 100 days into his presidency, Biden has already reversed or moved to roll-back many of Trump’s biggest foreign policy changes. But as evidenced by the decision on refugees, Biden is not pulling a complete 180 when it comes to international relations – and he’s facing growing accusations of talking big on human rights without fully backing it up.

On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But Biden did not sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over Khashoggi’s killing, even after the release of a declassified intelligence report directly implicating the Saudi leader in the brutal murder.

“It is extremely problematic, in my view, if not dangerous, to acknowledge someone’s culpability and then to tell that someone, ‘But we won’t do anything, please proceed as if have we have said nothing’,” Agnes Callamard, the new chief of Amnesty International who spearheaded a UN inquiry into Khashoggi’s killing, said of Biden.

More recently, Biden decided to move forward with a Trump era arms deal with the UAE involving the transfer of roughly $23 billion worth of advanced weaponry – including F-35s and drones. The UAE has played an intricate role in the devastating war in Yemen, where US-made bombs have been used in operations leading to civilian deaths.

In February, Biden announced he’s moving to end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Critics say this arms deal doesn’t exactly jive with that move and Biden’s broader promise to prioritize human rights.

Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that Biden’s advancement of Trump’s arm deal with the UAE means his administration “has backed out of its pledge” on Yemen and warned the US now risks complicity in future human rights violations.

“Trying to understand how a massive arms sale to a repressive authoritarian government that bankrolled regional anti-democratic counterrevolutions, backs a Libyan warlord, and helped rubble Yemen (a partial list) strengthens a rules-based international order,” Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, said in a tweet.

Duss has praised Biden on other foreign policy moves, such as the president’s decision to tap Antony Blinken as Secretary of State. But his criticism of Biden on the UAE sale is emblematic of evolving discontentment among progressives and human rights groups when it comes to the president’s foreign policy.

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Saudi Arabia just imprisoned an aid worker for running an anti-government Twitter page. His sister says it shows MBS is testing Biden’s pledge to be tough on the kingdom.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan.

  • A Saudi terror court sentenced aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years in prison on Tuesday.
  • His sister says it shows Biden’s plan to punish Saudi Arabia for rights abuses is having little effect.
  • Saudi Arabia freed several activists in the face of US pressure, but continues to prosecute others.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday sentenced an aid worker to 20 years in prison for running a Twitter account that he used to mock Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known also as MBS – and his government.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 37, was seized by Saudi secret police in March 2018 at the offices of the Saudi Red Crescent, an aid agency where he worked in Riyadh. He was sentenced by a specialist Saudi terror court but the specific charges remain undisclosed.

He also faces a 20-year travel ban after imprisonment.

His sister, Areej al-Sadhan, a US citizen who works in the Bay Area tech industry, told Insider that her brother’s sentencing is a clear sign that MBS is testing President Joe Biden’s promise to bring the Saudi leadership to heel over human-rights abuses.

In the two years leading up to his election, Biden talked tough on Saudi Arabia, promising in late 2019 to make the country’s leaders “the pariah they are” for silencing opposition and violating human rights.

But Areej al-Sadhan told Insider her brother’s sentence shows Saudi Arabia has no intention of letting the US dictate its internal affairs.

“Clearly the Saudis are testing President Biden’s commitment to the human rights first approach in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

“It just shows that the Saudi government are not serious about improving human rights at all.”

MBS Biden
A composite image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Joe Biden.

Insider contacted the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, and the Saudi Center for International Communication for comment.

Areej al-Sadhan went on to call on Biden and his administration to act.

“I ask President Biden to look at this seriously. We seriously need his help with human-rights activists, and to stand up for human rights as he promised. Just dismissing those abuses will lead to more abuses,” she told Insider.

‘They are feeling emboldened’

She added that Saudi Arabia is feeling untouchable because of the Biden administration’s failure to punish those responsible for the 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident who often criticized the Saudi government.

The Biden administration in February released a US intelligence report that said that MBS approved the hit on Khashoggi, but did not include the crown prince on a list of 76 Saudi officials sanctioned over the murder.

“Without consequences to Khashoggi’s murder, they are feeling emboldened to commit more human-rights abuses,” she said.

mohammed bin salman mbs
Crown Prince Mohammed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 20, 2019.

Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have yet to comment on al-Sadhan’s sentence, but, on Tuesday, the US State Department expressed concern.

“As we have said to Saudi officials at all levels, freedom of expression should never be a punishable offense,” spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also released a statement slamming the kingdom’s treatment of al-Sadhan, saying: “The brutal sentencing of humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, which follows his years-long disappearance and imprisonment without trial, is a grave and appalling injustice.”

“Riyadh needs to know that the world is watching its disturbing actions and that we will hold it accountable,” she added.

How al-Sadhan got caught

The exposure of al-Sadhan’s Twitter account is thought to be linked to a 2016 Twitter hack conducted by two Saudi spies employed by Twitter in San Francisco.

The hack saw Saudi authorities unmask scores of accounts that had been critical of the crown prince and Saudi state.

One dissident who had his account hacked, the Gulf analyst Ali al-Ahmed, previously told Insider the breach led to several of his contacts in Saudi Arabia being disappeared. He is suing Twitter for damages.

Ali al-Ahmed
Saudi scholar Ali al-Ahmed seen in Washington, DC, in 2018.

Areej al-Sadhan told Insider that her brother’s Twitter account was accessed by Saudi authorities, but that it’s unclear whether it was a result of the hack of al-Ahmed’s Twitter account.

Since taking office in January, the Biden administration has made a concerted effort to pressure Saudi Arabia into reigning in its human-rights abuses, and the move has come alongside some advancements.

In February, the US ended support for the Saudi-led Yemen war and Blinken called on his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, to remedy the kingdom’s poor human-rights record. The White House also made a petty dig at MBS, announcing that Biden’s counterpart in the kingdom was King Salman rather than the crown prince.

Several prominent rights activists were partially freed in 2021, most notably the women’s-right-to-drive activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

In February, Bader al-Ibrahim, a Saudi scientist, and Salah al-Haidar, the son of the detained women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, were also released. They were detained in April 2019 and charged with crimes relating to terror offenses.

They all remain under travel bans.

Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan was educated in the US, graduating from Notre Dame de Namur University in California in 2013.

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Saudi Arabia’s $500 million mega-city Neom is creating plans to harvest an unprecedented amount of data from future residents. Experts say it’s either dystopian or genius.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) and a rendering of what Neom's The Line city transport underbelly will look like.
A composite image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a rendering of Neom’s The Line transport system.

  • Saudi Arabia is building a futuristic mega city from scratch named Neom.
  • The city plans to ask future residents to submit a huge amount of personal data to help it run.
  • Experts said technophiles would flock to Neom, but warned about potential mass surveillance.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that a new city would be built from scratch in Saudi Arabia’s northwest deserts.

Neom would be “a place for dreamers,” he said, adding the $500 billion city would run by artificial intelligence and be funded by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.

Early plans for the city imagined flying taxis, holographic teachers, and an artificial moon. But few concrete details emerged until this January, when Neom authorities announced “The Line,” a string of settlements connected by a vast subterranean transport system.

Beating back doubts over funding and feasibility, work is moving ahead, as it is at several of the crown prince’s other pet projects.

An image showing "The Line" string of settlements that will make up Neom.
An image showing “The Line” string of settlements that will make up Neom.

Last month James Bradley, Neom’s head of technology, told ZDNet he wanted to collect 90% of available data from residents and smart infrastructure. Existing smart cities use about 1% of such data, Bradley added, without providing specifics.

Bradley’s interview is the first insight into how Neom will run. The Neom press office declined to comment for this story.

Current smart cities like Songdo, South Korea, use data from internet of things sensors to perform actions like alert people when their bus is approaching or prevent water waste – but nothing in existence comes close to Neom’s plan.

How ‘Neos’ works

Coordinating Neom’s data-collection effort will be an operating system called Neos, Bradley said.

Each resident would have a unique ID number, and Neos would process data from heart-rate monitors, phones, facial-recognition cameras, bank details, and thousands of internet of things devices around the city, per the plans reported by ZDNet.

For example, Neos would know if you had fallen over, and if you stayed down too long, it would deploy drones to your location and alert emergency services, ZDNet reported. You wouldn’t need to check into your hotel room online or at a desk, as a door-handle fingerprint scanner will suffice, ZDNet reported.

“Neom will be proactive,” Bradley told the outlet. “It can take action. And ultimately, it is personalized.”

For some, such extreme digital intrusion is an ominous prospect, but Neom is interested in attracting those who embrace the future.

Residents will have the option of choosing how much personal data they submit to Neos, Bradley told ZDNet, adding: “An individual’s right to privacy is theirs, but the ability to use that information is directly correlated to the value they receive.”

It is not clear whether Neom would require residents to pass over a minimum amount of data for basic functionalities.

Bradley NEom
James Bradley, Neom head of technology, talking about the city’s proposed underground transport network.

Convenience utopia or surveillance nightmare?

Experts described Neos as an extraordinary proposition, but noted that the deep level of technological integration could deter many from moving there – and leave the door open to a nefarious exploitation of personal data.

“Neom says you can opt in and opt out, but people will be skeptical of the truth of that,” Jonathan Richenthal, the author of “Smart Cities for Dummies,” told Insider.

“We hear too many stories where we thought there was a sensor on a traffic light that was used to count traffic but also had a camera in it that they didn’t switch off.”

Vincent Mosco, the author of “The Smart City in a Digital World,” added that Neom would have to show total transparency over the data gathered.

“We have no clear sense of what will be done with it,” he told Insider. “From what we know about Saudi Arabia, you know it’s unlikely to be used for good.”

Saudi Arabia’s government has been accused of hacking the phones of journalists, dissidents, and activists, as well as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Mosco and Richenthal both cited the case of a smart-city district proposed for Toronto in 2017 by Google’s SideWalk Labs that was scrapped in 2020 over surveillance concerns.

“No one trusted Google to manage data well or not pry on every activity you’re doing,” Richenthal said.

“You transfer that to a region of the world that inherently has transparency challenges already, and it gets more complicated.”

The Line Neom
“The Line” at Neom, a string of cities connected by an underground transport system.

‘People will value the convenience’

Other experts noted that for technophiles and those greedy for convenience, utilizing their personal data is not an issue.

“We like rewards,” Professor Andrew Hudson-Smith, a professor of Digital Urban Systems at University College London, told Insider.

“People will buy into this as long as they’re given an incentive for it. That may be better healthcare, which is what Neom has said.”

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst and member of Neom’s advisory board, suggested that much of the data Neom plans to harness is likely already being taken by tech companies today.

“People will value the convenience and the associated elimination of bureaucracy … over sharing their digital data that many assume is already in the public domain given the technology that they use,” he told Insider in an email, citing the use of smartphones and smartwatches.

For many, surrendering personal data isn’t an issue, added Professor Jiska Englebert, a communications and smart-city expert at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication in Rotterdam.

Neom’s residents are likely to be “the kind of people who say, ‘I don’t care, it will be quite impersonal, and if is is personal it will give me all kinds of benefits,'” she told Insider.

NEOM Saudi
The site of Neom in Tabuk Province, Saudi Arabia.

For other experts, the main barrier Neom faces is not a concern over surveillance.

“The main challenge is to create a society in the middle of nowhere, rather than to make people comfortable with the idea of sharing personal data and being surrounded by drones, robots, and AI,” Federico Cugurullo, an assistant professor at Trinity College, Dublin, who studies smart-city ecosystems, told Insider.

By and large, experts are excited about Neom, though they caveat that smart cities rarely resemble their original blueprints.

Richenthal said he was especially optimistic about Neom’s health-focused ethos, given that current cities place huge stress on their residents’ daily lives. For example, Neom plans to be car-free, reducing air and noise pollution, and have abundant green space.

“Every city eventually needs to upgrade and we are desperately looking for good ideas,” he said.

“This could create a bar for cities to learn what’s possible, what works.”

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Joe Biden is still stuck in the 20th-century world

US President Joe Biden, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and US Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks to the staff of the US State Department during his first visit in Washington, DC, February 4, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks to the staff of the US State Department, February 4, 2021.

  • Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden committed his administration’s foreign policy to the pursuit of the US’s “cherished democratic values.”
  • But Biden and his team appear wedded to 20th century narratives about the world and the US’s role in it, writes Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

You may have noticed: The Blob is back. Beneath a veneer of gender and racial diversity, the Biden national security team consists of seasoned operatives who earned their spurs in Washington long before Donald Trump showed up to spoil the party.

So if you’re looking for fresh faces at the departments of state or defense, the National Security Council or the various intelligence agencies, you’ll have to search pretty hard. Ditto, if you’re looking for fresh insights. In Washington, members of the foreign policy establishment recite stale bromides, even as they divert attention from a dead past to which they remain devoted.

The boss shows them how it’s done.

Just two weeks into his presidency, Joe Biden visited the State Department to give American diplomats their marching orders. In his formal remarks, the president committed his administration to “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

His language allowed no room for quibbles or exemptions. In our world, some things can be waived – SAT scores for blue-chip athletes being recruited to play big-time college ball, for example. Yet cherished values presumably qualify as sacrosanct. To take Biden at his word, his administration will honor this commitment not some of the time, but consistently; not just when it’s convenient to do so, but without exception.

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October.

Less than a month later, the president received a ready-made opportunity to demonstrate his fealty to those very values.

The matter at hand concerned Saudi Arabia, more specifically the release of an intelligence report fingering Mohammad bin Salman, aka MBS, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler of that country, for ordering the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist employed by The Washington Post. The contents of the report surprised no one. The interesting question was how the new president would respond.

Months earlier, during the election campaign, Biden had described Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally, as a “pariah state” that possessed “no redeeming value.”

Previously, Donald Trump had cozied up to the Saudi royals – they were his kind of people. As far as candidate Biden was concerned, the time for romancing Riyadh had ended. Never again, he vowed, would Washington “check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.”

Let it be said that a preference for lucre rather than principles succinctly describes traditional US-Saudi relations going back several decades. While President Trump treated the “friendship” between the two countries as cause for celebration, other American leaders gingerly tip-toed around the role allotted to arms and oil.

In diplomacy, some things were better left unsaid. So, to hear candidate Biden publicly acknowledge the relationship’s tawdry essence was little short of astonishing.

While a member of the Senate and during his eight years as vice president, he had hardly gone out of his way to pick fights with the Kingdom. Were Biden to replace Trump, however, things were going to change. Big time.

Threading the needle

Joe Biden Saudi Arabia
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, October 27, 2011.

As it turned out, not so much. Once inaugurated, Biden found ample reason for checking American principles at the door. Shelving further references to Saudi Arabia as a pariah, he tweaked Washington’s relationship with the Kingdom, while preserving its essence.

The term chosen to describe the process is recalibrate. In practical terms, recalibration means that the US government is sanctioning a few dozen Saudi functionaries for their involvement in the Khashoggi assassination, while giving Mohammad Bin Salman himself a pass.

MBS’s sanctioned henchmen would do well to cancel any planned flights into New York’s JFK airport or Washington’s Dulles, where the FBI will undoubtedly be waiting to take them into custody. That said, unless they fall out of favor with the crown prince himself, the assassins will literally get away with murder.

Recalibration also means that the United States is “pausing” – not terminating – further arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The purpose of the pause, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has explained, is “to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy.”

Translation? Don’t expect much to happen.

Inside the Beltway, lobbyists for US arms merchants are undoubtedly touching base with members of Congress whose constituencies benefit from exporting weapons to that very country. Said lobbyists need not burn the midnight oil, however. Mr. Khashoggi’s demise has complicated but will not derail the US-Saudi relationship. Given time, some version of the status quo will be restored.

US Air Force Army airmen soldiers Prince Sultan Air Base Saudi Arabia
US airmen and soldiers arrive at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2019.

Just one more example of American hypocrisy? Within the Blob, a different view pertains. Consider the perspective of former senior official and longtime Middle Eastern hand Dennis Ross. “This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests,” Mr. Ross told The New York Times.

Biden, he added approvingly, is now “trying to thread the needle.” Mustering the wisdom acquired from decades of service deep inside the Blob, Ross pointed out that “there isn’t an issue in the Middle East where we don’t need them to play a role – on Iran, on competing with the Chinese.”

Ultimately, it’s that simple: The United States needs Saudi Arabia.

As a respected member of the foreign policy establishment, Ross speaks with the authority that gets you quoted in the Times. Informing his perspective is a certain iron logic, time-tested and seemingly endorsed by history itself. Take that logic at face value and Washington needs Saudi Arabia because it needs to police the Persian Gulf and its environs, as required by the decades-old, never-to-be-questioned Carter Doctrine.

The United States needs Saudi Arabia because the Kingdom already plays a not-inconsequential role in the drama accompanying energy-hungry China’s emergence as a great power. And let’s face it: The United States also needs Saudi Arabia because of all that oil (even though this country no longer actually uses that oil itself) and because MBS’s insatiable appetite for arms helps to sustain the military-industrial complex.

So the pieces all fit into a coherent whole, thereby validating a particular conception of history itself. The United States needs Saudi Arabia for the same reason that it needs to remain part of NATO, needs to defend various other allies, needs to maintain a sprawling worldwide constellation of bases, needs to annually export billions of dollars worth of weaponry, needs to engage in endless wars, and needs to spend a trillion-plus dollars annually pursuant to what is usually described as “national security.”

More broadly, the United States needs to do all these things because it needs to lead a world that cannot do without its leadership. The trajectory of events going back more than a century now, encompassing two world wars, the Cold War, and the forever wars of the post-Cold War era, proves as much. End of discussion.

Second thoughts?

trump sword dance saudi arabia
President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Saturday evening, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Not all historians bow to the iron logic to which the Blob subscribes, however. Recent events are prompting a few dissenters to entertain second thoughts. Among them is Professor Martin Conway of Oxford University. Now, Professor Conway is anything but a household name. When it comes to name recognition, he doesn’t hold a candle to Dennis Ross, nor is he someone The New York Times consults on issues of the day.

So should we attend to Professor Conway’s contrarian perspective? Very much so and here’s why: Compared to Ross or the sundry Blobbers now in Joe Biden’s employ, Conway is not a prisoner of a curated past. He’s open to the possibility that the sell-by date attached to that taken-for-granted past may well have expired.

Consider his provocative essay “Making Trump History,” recently published online in H-Diplo. (A more accurate title would have been “History as Illuminated by Trump.”)

By and large, Conway writes, scholars deem Trump to have been “an insult to the historical narrative,” a living, breathing “refutation of deeply held assumptions among historians about how the democratic politics of the US are supposed to work.”

Their reflexive response is to classify Trump as an outlier, a one-off intruder, a conviction seemingly affirmed by his failure to win a second term. With his departure from the White House, the resumption of normalcy (or at least what passed for the same in Washington) has theoretically become possible. Biden’s job is to hasten its return.

Conway entertains another view. He speculates that normalcy may, in fact, be gone for good. And the sooner the rest of us grasp that, he believes, the better.

Conway boldly rejects the media’s preferred Manichean account of the so-called Age of Trump. Rather than insulting the traditional Washington narrative, he suggests, Trump simply supplanted it. Wittingly or not, the new president acted in concert with political opportunists in Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere who, in advancing their own ambitions, trampled all over the familiar storyline devised and refined to make sense of our age.

Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden meets with U.S. troops in Maidan Wardak province January 11, 2011.

As a first step toward grasping what’s now underway, Conway urges his fellow historians to “bury their narratives of the twentieth century” – on a par with asking Ohio State or the University of Alabama to give up football. Conway then suggests that a new past he calls a “history of the present” is emerging. And he identifies “three trig points” to begin mapping the “uncharted landscape” that lies ahead.

The first relates to the collapse of barriers that had long confined politics to familiar channels. Today, democratic politics has “burst its banks,” Conway writes. The people once assumed to be in charge no longer really are.

Presidents, prime ministers, and parliamentarians compete with (and frequently court) “footballers, TV celebrities, and rap artists” who “communicate more directly and effectively with the public.” Who do you trust? Mitch McConnell or George Clooney? Who has your ear? Nancy Pelosi or Oprah Winfrey?

Conway’s second trig point references the bond between citizens and the state. The old contract – individual duties performed in exchange for collective benefits – no longer applies. Instead, the “new politics of the bazaar” shortchange the many while benefiting the few (like the mega-wealthy Americans who, during the coronavirus pandemic, have so far raked in an estimated extra $1.3 trillion).

Egged on by politicians like Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the less privileged have figured this out. Biden’s efforts to pass yet another Covid-19-related relief bill responded to but could not conceal the real story: the emergence of an anti-establishment populism.

His final trig point wipes out the old-fashioned “political frontiers of the left and right.” In the History of the Present, politics emphasize “identity and grievance.” Citizens lend their support to causes centered on “emotions, group identity, or aspirations,” while rendering once-accepted notions of class and party all but irrelevant. “Institutional structures, ideological traditions, and indeed democratic norms” are being “replaced by a less disciplined and more open politics.” Passions govern, imparting to the History of the Present unprecedented levels of volatility.

Conway doesn’t pretend to know where all this will lead, other than suggesting that the implications are likely to be striking and persistent. But let me suggest the following: For all their rote references to new challenges in a new era, President Biden and the members of his crew are clueless as to what the onset of Conway’s History of the Present portends.

Throughout the ranks of the establishment, the reassuringly familiar narratives of the 20th century retain their allure. Among other things, they obviate the need to think.

Wrong thread, wrong needle


Nowhere is this more emphatically the case than in quarters where members of the Blob congregate and where the implications of Conway’s analysis may well have the most profound impact. Conway’s primary concern is with developments within what used to be called the West.

That said, the History of the Present will profoundly impact relations between the West (which, these days, really means the United States) and the rest of the world. And that brings us right back to President Biden’s awkward effort to “thread the needle” regarding Saudi Arabia.

Someday, when a successor to Buzzfeed posts an official ranking of 21st-century crimes, the vicious murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul won’t even make it anywhere near the first tier.

His assassination will, for instance, certainly trail well behind the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, not to speak of various other US military actions from Afghanistan to Somalia undertaken as part of the so-called Global War on Terror.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, President Bush and his successors cited those very “narratives of the twentieth century” to which Professor Conway refers to justify their interventions across the Greater Middle East. The most important – indeed beloved – narrative celebrates the US role in ensuring freedom’s triumph over evil in the form of various totalitarian ideologies.

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden.

Attach all the caveats and exceptions you want: Hiroshima, Vietnam, CIA-engineered coups, the Bay of Pigs, the Iran-Contra scandal, and so on and so forth. Yet even today, most Americans believe and virtually anyone responsible for formulating and implementing basic US global policy affirms that the United States is a force for good in the world.

As such, America is irreplaceable, indispensable, and essential. Hence, the unique prerogatives that it confers on itself are justified. Such thinking, of course, sustains the conviction that, even today, alone among nations, the United States is able to keep its interests and “its most cherished democratic values” in neat alignment.

By discarding the narratives of the 20th century, Conway’s History of the Present invites us to see this claim for what it is – a falsehood of Trumpian dimensions, one that, in recent decades, has wreaked untold havoc while distracting policymakers from concerns far more urgent than engaging in damage control on behalf of Mohammad Bin Salman.

A proper appreciation of the History of the Present will only begin with the realization that the United States needs neither MBS, nor Saudi Arabia, nor for that matter a sprawling and expensive national security apparatus to police the Persian Gulf.

What this country does need is to recognize that the 20th century is gone for good. Developments ranging from the worsening threat posed by climate change to the shifting power balance in East Asia, not to mention the transformation of American politics ushered in by Donald Trump, should have made this patently obvious.

If Professor Conway is right – and I’m convinced that he is – then it’s past time to give the narratives of the 20th century a decent burial. Doing so may be a precondition for our very survival.

Sadly, Joe Biden and his associates appear demonstrably incapable of exchanging the history that they know for a history on which our future may well depend. As a result, they will cling to an increasingly irrelevant past. Under the guise of correcting Trump’s failures, they will perpetuate their own.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.” His new book, “After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed,” is due out in June.

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The world has changed, and now Biden needs to change how the US deals with Saudi Arabia

Joe Biden Saudi Arabia
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, October 27, 2011.

  • President Joe Biden’s recalibration of US-Saudi relations is long-overdue.
  • Blowing up the relationship wouldn’t be wise, but the US does need to stop treating Saudi Arabia like it’s still the 20th century, writes Defense Priorities fellow Daniel DePetris.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is in a state of turbulence.

Persistent drone and missile attacks by the Houthis, including a March 7 strike on a major Saudi oil export facility at Ras Tanura, has led Washington to reiterate its “unwavering” commitment to the defense.

Yet at the same time, the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi underscores just how urgent a recalibration of US-Saudi relations really is.

The Biden administration has taken pains to thread the needle between accountability for the killing of a journalist and permanent US resident and the need to maintain a constructive relationship with the kingdom. In general, this is the correct approach. As despicable as bin Salman’s behavior has been since he rose from obscure prince to day-to-day ruler, the US blowing up the entire relationship would not be wise.

This, however, doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t in need of serious work. The US has too often based its engagement with Saudi Arabia as if the world was still in the 20th century.

President Joe Biden needs to reset the terms at an institutional level, getting away from an oil-for-security paradigm no longer as durable today as it was 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. Instituting a travel ban on problematic Saudis, slapping financial sanctions on certain Saudi entities and cutting Prince Mohammed off from Biden are surface-level gestures. What Washington needs is real reform.

Mohammed Bin Salman
Mohammed bin Salman, then Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, arrives at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016.

Washington and Riyadh established their strategic relationship at the tail end of World War II, when US President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud struck a transactional arrangement that would come to be known colloquially as the oil-for-security scheme.

In return for the Saudis opening their taps and providing a reliable supply of crude oil into the market, the US would grant the kingdom the defense articles and military training needed to protect itself from external threats. The understanding proved to be a pragmatic and largely effective one for both countries, both of which were wary of the Soviet Union and concerned about what Soviet expansionism in the Middle East would mean for the world’s most valuable energy source.

For US officials at the time, having one of the world’s biggest oil producers in Washington’s corner was simply common-sense.

Times, however, have changed. The Soviet Union, America’s adversary for over 45 years, has been in the history books for nearly three decades. While fossil fuels remain vital for the global economy, the tremendous progress being made in green energy is giving the world, including the United States, an opportunity to diversify its energy sources and thereby lessen its dependence on crude oil.

As a consequence, Riyadh has lost some of its influence over geopolitics. In 1991, the US imported 1.8 million barrels of Saudi oil per day. According to the Energy Information Agency’s own data, that figure has gone down to 530,000 barrels per day – the lowest since 1985.

Just because the US is importing less Saudi oil, of course, doesn’t mean the kingdom’s oil reserves are not important. But what it does mean is that the old oil-for-security model that has dominated bilateral relations for so long is less relevant in 2021 than it was during the Cold War.

Back then, a rival superpower dictating Persian Gulf oil prices was at least a plausible scenario for US policymakers and defense planners. Nobody can seriously make the same argument today – Iran and Russia are far too weak militarily and economically to reach hegemonic status, and China doesn’t seem particularly interested in bogging itself down in the Middle East.

Riyadh Saudi Arabia

The Biden administration’s recalibration of US-Saudi relations is long-overdue.

The president’s decision last month to end offensive US military support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen was a big step in the right direction, distancing Washington from Riyadh’s reckless air campaign and sending King Salman and his favorite son a message that the US won’t automatically be at the beck and call of the kingdom – especially when the kingdom’s own actions are a big part of the problem.

But a recalibration will stall if the Biden administration thinks all it needs to do is reprimand Crown Prince Mohammed and put the brash heir in his place. And it won’t succeed at all if Washington neglects three critical points: 1) Saudi Arabia is not a formal US treaty ally, 2) US and Saudi interests are more likely to diverge than coalesce, and 3) What is good for the kingdom in the Middle East does necessarily correlate with what is good for the US.

Biden has a golden opportunity to rewrite the old, 75-year-old contract governing the US-Saudi relationship, one where the US approaches the kingdom like any authoritarian state with a terrible human rights record: skeptical and at arms-length, but ready to do business when US national security interests demand it.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.

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Oil prices whipsaw as traders digest attack on Saudi oil terminal

saudi aramco plant
A view shows Saudi Aramco’s Wasit Gas Plant, Saudi Arabia in 2014.

  • Brent oil, the international benchmark, surged above $70 for the first time in more than a year. 
  • Saudi Arabia said it intercepted drone and missile attacks aimed against its facilities. 
  • Yemen’s Houthi rebels reportedly claimed they hit the facilities they targeted in Saudi Arabia.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Oil prices shot up past $70 for the first time in more than a year after key facilities in Saudi Arabia came under a missile and drone attack Sunday.

Saudi Arabia said the attacks were intercepted, with an attempted drone strike aimed at one of the petroleum tank farms in the Ras Tanura port while a ballistic missile targeted Saudi Aramco facilities in Dharan, according to the Saudi Press Agency

Brent oil, oil’s international benchmark, climbed to an intraday high of $71.38 per barrel as it packed on more than 2% from Friday’s settlement. Brent oil hadn’t traded above $70 since January 2020. The price on Monday eventually turned lower, losing 0.2% at $69.24.

The West Texas Intermediate continuous oil contract reached as high as $67.26 before pulling back. It was off $0.02 at $65.43.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Sunday claimed they hit facilities in Ras Tanura, according to the Washington Post. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been fighting against the rebels backed by Iran since 2015.

“The Ministry of Defense will undertake all necessary, deterrent measures to safeguard its national assets in a manner that preserves the security of global energy,” said Brigadier General Turki Al-Malki of Saudi Arabia’s defense ministry in a statement.

Oil prices climbed last week after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies agreed to keep production cuts intact through April, a decision made as a recovery in the market is still taking shape while the COVID-19 pandemic persists.

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Oil surges 5% following reports OPEC+ will extend production cuts through April

oil texas
Workers extract oil from wells in the Permian Basin in Midland, Texas.

  • Oil prices surged by more than 5% after OPEC and its allies reportedly agreed to keep output levels steady. 
  • Saudi Arabia committed to sticking with a voluntary oil supply cut of 1 million barrels per day.
  • The supply decision by OPEC+ is “incredibly bullish” for the oil market, says one analyst.  
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Oil prices soared Thursday in the wake of reports that major oil producers have agreed to keep their supply cuts intact through next month.

OPEC and its allies had been discussing whether or not to restore as much as 1.5 million barrels a day of oil production. The group ultimately decided that it will leave output at current levels, according to a Bloomberg report

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, committed to extend its voluntary cut of 1 million barrels of oil per day. The oil market officials meet via video-conference. The discussion took place at a time when recovery in the oil market is still taking hold after a plunge in demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Prices for Brent crude, the international benchmark, jumped as much as 5.3% to an intraday high of $67.47, with the gain later trimmed to 4.7%.

The decision by OPEC+ was “incredibly bullish,” and Saudi Arabia’s decision “was shocking as it leaves them vulnerable to losing market share next month when the oil market is in deficit by a couple million barrels,” said Edward Moya, senior market analyst at Oanda, in a note.

West Texas Intermediate oil futures also popped up as much as 5.3% to an intraday high of $64.51. The continuous contract was later up by 4.6%.

The Energy Select Sector SPDR exchange-traded fund climbed 3.8% and the United States Oil Fund, a popular oil ETF, moved up 6%.

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