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How an activist’s imprisonment could derail US-Saudi special relationship

Abusive regimes have flaunted their unbridled power because they believed the Trump administration had their backs.

Analysis | Middle East

Loujain Hathloul’s recent prison sentence to nearly six years has highlighted the despicable human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and in most Arab states across the Middle East. Although the Hathloul case is not unique, her pro-human rights activism and the vicious treatment, including torture and abuse, she has suffered in Saudi jails underscores the hypocrisy of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s claim to reform.

Hathloul’s conviction and sentence following a sham trial and a bogus set of “terrorist” charges should provide the incoming Biden administration the moral courage to hold MBS accountable for the systemic human and women’s rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. He should no longer be allowed to tout the so-called special relationship as an excuse for Washington’s continued tolerance of his tyranny.

The U.S.-Saudi special relationship that goes back to World War II was based on shared interests between the two states. Beyond oil and defense, Saudi Arabia never shared the American values of good governance, the rule of law, and freedoms of expression, speech, and assembly. Successive U.S. presidents have allowed Saudi rulers to trample on these values in order to maintain access to large quantities of Saudi oil at reasonable prices and to sell the Saudis expensive sophisticated weapons systems.

The Biden administration is positioned to inform the Saudis in no uncertain terms that this special relationship has run its course and that human rights is being moved to center stage of Washington’s diplomacy in the post-Trump era. The incoming administration should tell MBS that the Saudi-American person-to-person relationship (MBS and Jared Kushner) will revert to a state-to-state status, and that MBS no longer will have unfettered access to the White House. The Kushner-MBS personalized relations have undermined the professionalism of American diplomacy that has traditionally been practiced by seasoned diplomats driven by comprehensive analysis and deep expertise.

Human rights, which was relegated to the backburner under Trump, should once again become an integral ingredient of diplomatic relations, policies, and practices under President-elect Biden. This message also should be conveyed to other autocrats in the region and beyond.

Middle Eastern autocrats in the past four years have felt empowered by President Trump to suppress their peoples’ demands for democracy, political participation, and justice. Consequently, mistrust of regimes, governing institutions, and the United States has risen significantly. As many citizens in the Middle East have come to equate the Trump administration with their regimes’ tyranny, domestic instability and the expected spread of terrorism have emerged as key challenges for the Biden administration. Negative attitudes toward the United States have been driven by the perception — often correct — that the Trump administration has coddled dictators and shown no interest in improving the daily lives of their peoples.  

Autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere have attacked peaceful dissidents, jailed and tortured thousands, and destroyed a whole generation of young people since the start of the Arab Spring in early 2011. In order to stay in power and cement their hold on their society, they have spent billions of dollars on weapons and surveillance technologies, mostly for domestic use, at the expense of budgets for modern education, innovation, critical technologies, and entrepreneurial enterprises.

Regimes have promulgated draconian laws to keep their human rights advocates and budding entrepreneurs from contacting foreign donors and non-governmental organizations for advice or support for start-up funds. In fact, some of the main charges against the Saudi dissident Hathloul included communicating with international human rights groups and United Nations agencies. Saudi authorities used these fake charges as a pretext for accusing her of seeking to change the Saudi political system and to try her under their so-called terrorism laws.

Like Saudi Arabia, Egypt has also criminalized contacts with foreign NGOs, international human rights organizations, and funding groups. According to Egyptian laws, it is a crime to seek or receive financial support from a foreign organization or funding agency, including European or U.S. foundations, for any social, humanitarian, or entrepreneurial project. These legal fig leaves represent the most insidious restrictions on human rights in Arab autocracies and will have lasting deleterious effects on their societies.

Managing Saudi and other autocracies

Thanks to the push by President Trump and Jared Kushner to personalize relations with Middle Eastern autocrats, including MBS, the balance between American interests and values in the past four years has shifted exponentially away from values. Such a shift did not result from a thought-out review process of the country’s defense posture or the position of the Middle East in America’s strategic posture. The killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the torture and jailing of Hathloul are two stark examples of how Middle Eastern autocratic regimes have dealt with dissidents and suppressed popular demands for freedom.

Regimes have flaunted their unbridled power and control domestically because of their belief that the Trump administration had their back. Sadly, the United States has lost all creditability when it came to the defense of human rights globally. For example, when the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chided China for its treatment of the Uighur Muslims, the Chinese questioned the moral authority he claimed to have in defense of human rights.

Similarly, when the Trump administration criticized the Iranian regime for abuses, Iran’s rulers scoffed at the perceived hypocrisy, especially as Washington tolerated equally abhorrent human rights violations in its friendly Arab autocracies across the Persian Gulf.

Although the Middle East no longer occupies a prominent position in the long-term strategic policy planning of the United States, President-elect Biden’s foreign policy advisers should re-establish the balance between values and interests. Of course, they will have to interact with autocratic regimes economically, politically, and militarily, but they also should deliver a clear message that the United States stands up for human rights.

People from all over the Middle East, and in fact throughout the world, line up at U.S. consulates seeking entry visas to the United States not because of the country’s military might or advanced weaponry, but because they value this country’s innovation, creativity, technological and scientific discoveries, economic opportunity, and the freedom to be who they are.

Public opinion polls in the past two decades have consistently shown that although people in distant lands tend to be critical of American foreign policy, they always admired the values of freedom and individual liberty enshrined in American legal, social, and political culture. These are the values that Biden has spoken about and which he should advocate in engaging Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern autocracies. As the the Quincy Institute’s Manifesto of Restrainers notes, the United States should have relations with all states and special relationships with none. If the Biden administration follows this advice and ends the special relationship with Saudi Arabia, then Loujain Hathloul’s shameful prison sentence will not have been in vain.

Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner, and his wife, Assistant to the President Ivanka Trump, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus are seen as they arrive with President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump to the Murabba Palace as honored guests of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Saturday evening, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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