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In Salma al-Shehab case, MBS again plays Biden for a fool

Weeks after the president got assurances that the Saudi crown prince is a "reformer," a twitter critic gets a 34-year prison sentence.

Analysis | Middle East

The Saudi government under the de facto rule of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has become increasingly repressive with draconian punishments meted out even to the mildest and most innocuous dissenters.

It is not uncommon for the government to imprison critics for sending out a tweet that the authorities judge to be disloyal or just insufficiently enthusiastic in its support for official policy. The latest example of the Saudi government’s obnoxious crackdown came with the sentencing of Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old Saudi PhD student at the University of Leeds, to 34 years in prison for following and retweeting other dissidents and activists on Twitter. 

According to human rights observers, her sentence is the longest one ever given to any Saudi activist. She had initially been sentenced to six years in prison, which was already appalling, but then her sentence was increased after she appealed. 

Condemning an innocent woman to decades in prison for nothing more than using social media shows the Saudi government’s cruel repression of their own people and its cynical use of its so-called counterterrorism law to quash criticism of the government. It is one more example that explodes the lie that the crown prince is a reforming modernizer. As the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights said, the sentence “confirms that Saudi Arabia deals with those who demand reforms and critics on social networks as terrorists.”

Saudi Arabia has long been ruled by an authoritarian regime, but in the last few years it has become even more of a police state than before. The Biden administration claimed after the president’s visit to Saudi Arabia that he had received commitments “with respect to reforms and institutional safeguards” to prevent abusive treatment of dissidents in the future, but the outrageous sentence handed down in this case just a few weeks after Biden left proves that these commitments were worthless. 

The Washington Post reached the same conclusion in a scathing editorial this week, saying that the “Saudi promises to Mr. Biden were a farce.” The warnings from Saudi dissidents ahead of the president’s visit were correct: meeting with the crown prince would encourage him to crack down even more on his critics in the knowledge that Washington would say little and do nothing in response.

It is now imperative that the Biden administration correct their earlier mistakes and put significant pressure on Riyadh that they have thus far been unwilling to apply. 

The crown prince and his enforcers have been bent on tracking and punishing dissidents residing abroad, and the government has used social media to target, harass, and threaten many Saudi activists. Saud al-Qahtani, one of the crown prince’s top aides and one of the men deeply involved in the plot to murder Jamal Khashoggi, has been instrumental in running the Saudi government’s program to promote pro-government propaganda online and to identify the Saudis living in the diaspora that they want to silence. 

As journalist Ben Hubbard detailed in his book, MBS, al-Qahtani has been responsible for “spearheading a frenzied online McCarthyism.” The army of cyber-trolls he oversees pushes out the official government line and goes after anyone that they perceive as deviating from it. He and his “electronic flies,” as they are sometimes called by critics, have been spreading a new narrative of authoritarian nationalism and branding anyone that steps out of line as traitors.

Madawi al-Rasheed describes these troll farms in Saudi Arabia in her book, The Son King:

 “Under the pretext of defending the nation, the government’s infamous cyber-army intimidates activists both inside and outside Saudi Arabia. They send Twitter messages to exiled Saudis and threaten them with kidnapping and assassination. They are also experienced in hacking dissidents’ online accounts and implementing a pervasive surveillance regime, using the latest imported technology from the USA, Europe, and Israel.”

 It was reportedly a Saudi troll that flagged Salma al-Shehab’s Twitter activity through a “snitching app,” and two months later she was arrested when she returned to the kingdom on holiday in late 2020. 

Salma al-Shehab is only one of the most recent victims of this expanding digital authoritarian system. For example, Dr. Salman Alodah remains in prison five years after he wrote a tweet expressing a desire for reconciliation with Qatar at the start of the Saudi-led blockade of that country. Five years later, the blockade of Qatar has ended, but Alodah is being held without having been convicted of anything. 

The new campaign of repression has been going on for the last five years, and according to a recent report for The Economistby Nicolas Pelham thousands of Saudi citizens from all walks of life have been detained. In addition to detaining more critics for the flimsiest of reasons, the government’s crackdown has become much bloodier as well. Despite promising to move away from the use of capital punishment, Mohammed bin Salman has presided over a significant increase in the number of executions, including the mass executions of dozens of prisoners, many of whom were convicted on trumped-up charges of terrorism following sham trials. In just the first half of 2022 alone, the Saudi government has executed 120 people, and of those 81 were put to death in one day in March. 

The Biden administration’s response to the sentencing of Salma al-Shehab has so far been tepid and unsatisfactory. The State Department said Wednesday that the U.S. is “studying” the case, and the department spokesman Ned Price added, “Exercising freedom of expression to advocate for the rights of women should not be criminalized, it should never be criminalized.” That statement is a start, but it doesn’t amount to much on its own. 

The reality is that the Saudi government routinely criminalizes speech and treats dissent as if it were terrorism all the time, and it virtually never faces any criticism or pushback from Washington when it does so. The administration has an opportunity here to undo a little bit of the damage they did to their reputation and the reputation of the United States when they curried favor with the crown prince. 

To that end, Biden should press the Saudi government to drop the charges against Salma al-Shehab and allow her to return to her family in the U.K. 

Saudi Arabia is not and cannot be a reliable security partner when it treats speech as terrorism and locks up peaceful critics for years and decades at a time. When the U.S. supports and arms repressive governments like this one, it effectively gives its stamp of approval to their brutal methods and implicates itself in their abuses. 

As long as the Saudi government believes that there is nothing that they can do that jeopardizes Washington’s support, its behavior will only become more abusive and outrageous over time. Since Mohammed bin Salman gained power as crown prince, he has encountered no serious, sustained resistance from Washington, and he drew the lesson that he could act with impunity. It is time to make the crown prince and the Saudi government face consequences in the form of halted arms sales, greater scrutiny of human rights abuses, and more direct criticism. 

Saudi crown prince Mohhamed bin Salman (Reuters)/Salma al-Sehab (NBC News/screeengrab)/President Biden (DoD)
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