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Jailed Saudi women's activist poses early test for Biden

Loujain Al-Hathoul is everything the new president should stand for, but is he ready to stand up to MBS?

Analysis | Middle East

Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathoul’s sentencing on Monday -- after 950 days in detention -- elicited both scornful condemnations and sighs of relief from international commentators, as a Saudi court farcically convicted her of “terrorism” but sentenced her to a mere five years and eight months in prison, far less than the 20 years than the prosecution had sought.

With time served and a two-year and ten-month suspended sentence, this should mean AlHathloul can leave prison early 2021, though she will remain subject to a reported five-year travel ban

Both the Saudi government and the incoming Biden administration may hope her release will be a face-saving measure to avoid an early showdown, given Biden’s unequivocal promises to sanction Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman as a “pariah,” and to end weapons sales that have fueled Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

But the never-ending stream of MBS’s abuses, including the arrest and detention of dozens of activists like Alhathloul, including U.S. citizen Walid Fitaihi, as well as the ongoing air bombardment of Yemen, will make this difficult, if not impossible. The Biden administration won’t be able to avoid a real and early test of what its rhetorical commitment to “stand up against human rights violations,” as Jake Sullivan tweeted on December 28 in response to Alhathloul’s verdict, actually means as a matter of hard policy.

Alhathloul has deservedly earned her standing as the country’s most prominent women’s rights activist. She has boldly and fearlessly pursued her demands for an end to the guardianship system in the country — which treats women as perpetual minors subject to the control of their male guardians — as well as for women’s right to drive, for well over a decade, earning more than one prior stint in jail under the late King Abdullah. Even after receiving a relatively favorable sentence, she has remained defiant, demanding an appeal and a new investigation into her credible and well-documented allegations of torture and sexual abuse by her Saudi jailers.

Activists and reformers like Alhathloul have worked for years and sacrificed tremendously to pave the way for change in their country. But the atmosphere became dramatically more dangerous when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ascended to power. He perceives any dissent, criticism, or political or social independence in the country as a threat that must be crushed and eliminated. So he inaugurated his rule with the arrest, torture, detention and even killing, of hundreds of activists, religious leaders, scholars, journalists, and business leaders

The abuses haven’t let up either. Even the royals haven’t been spared. The Crown Prince has jailed or put under house arrest the most prominent and powerful amongst them, including former Crown Prince and long-time CIA ally Mohamed bin Nayef, Princes Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, Faisal bin Abdullah, and Turki bin Abdullah. 

MBS also tracked down and hunted dissidents outside the kingdom, most infamously ordering the abduction and murder of DAWN founder and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, but also ex-royal adviser Dr. Saad al-Jabri and journalist Ghada Oueiss. He now faces three lawsuits in U.S. federal district courts as a result. 

The U.S. State Department sent al-Jabri’s lawyers a questionnaire last month asking their views on MBS’s October 2020 request for immunity in the al-Jabri case, a good indication that Trump is considering granting the request, dangling the most precious carrot of all in MBS’s face. MBS clearly hopes to extend any grant of immunity in the Al-Jabri case to the other lawsuits, ending his legal travails in U.S. federal courts. And Trump also announced that he had fast-tracked 500 million dollars in arms transfers to the Kingdom, another pre-departure sweetener. Missy Ryan of the Washington Post just reported Tuesday on Twitter that the Trump administration announced another weapons sale to Saudi Arabia — this one for $250 million worth of GBU-39 munitions from Boeing. This is a Foreign Military Sale, which is a government-to-government transfer, not a commercial transaction like the last one.

What the Trump administration really wants from Saudi Arabia for these last parcels of largesse, of course, is for MBS to normalize ties with Israel before Trump leaves office.

If Saudi normalizes — or promises to normalize — with Israel, the Biden administration will find itself under even more pressure to maintain business as usual with Saudi Arabia. On top of the defense industry’s lobbying and the siren song of billions more in arms sales, pressure to “appease” the Saudis as the price for the terrible offense of a renewed nuclear deal with Iran is certain to materialize. Indeed, the Biden administration will find Israel and the Israel lobby aggressively fighting against any tough measures against the Kingdom. This was evidenced recently with Israel and its lobbyists, on the heels of the Abraham Accords, pushing hard against ultimately losing bills in Congress opposing the U.S. arms sales to the United Arab Emirates, MBS’s partner-in-war-crimes.

The very first test the Biden administration will face in its promises vis-a-vis Saudi not to “check its values at the door” is responding to demands (including two lawsuits brought by the Open Society Justice Initiative) for the release of the Director of National Intelligence report on the murder of Khashoggi and the CIA’s evidence that led it to conclude that MBS had ordered the killing. Senator Wyden has already declared he will question Avril Haines, Biden’s nominee to head national intelligence, about this during her confirmation hearings, as early as January. Release of the report, providing evidence of MBS’s direct role in the murder, would put Biden in even more of a bind to keep his promises and end arms sales to Riyadh.

The reality is that military and diplomatic support for Saudi Arabia — including the presence of American troops in the Kingdom, billions in arms sales, intelligence and targeting assistance in the Yemen war, as well as diplomatic protection from international isolation for its atrocious human rights record — creates an endless bind for America. 

Most significantly, it makes Americans culpable in the crown prince’s abuses and entangles us in his disastrous and criminal agendas throughout the region. It encourages Saudi Arabia to imprison activists as chits that can be offered up in response to pressures for reform. The Biden administration has enough experience to understand MBS’s modus operandi, but just needs the support and courage to act on its beliefs.

Sarah Leah Whitson is Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). 

Women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul (Reuters video)
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