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Biden arrives in a Saudi Arabia where human rights violations go far beyond Khashoggi’s murder

“Saudi Arabia is now a police state,” says one activist.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2019.
Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

Lina al-Hathloul is an activist from Saudi Arabia whose sister, Loujain, was imprisoned and tortured from 2018 to 2021. She traveled to Washington this week to explain to policymakers just how devastating it is that President Joe Biden has traveled to the Middle East to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, known as MBS.

“The thing is, Saudi Arabia is now a police state. So whatever reforms they brag about having, concretely, it really depends on the will of MBS,” Lina al-Hathloul told me. “It’s a dictatorship and a dark era for Saudi that we’ve never experienced before.”

Biden, who has said since 2018 that he is appalled by the assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi directed by MBS, kept his distance from the crown prince for the first 17 months of his presidency until strategic interests won out.

The murder of Khashoggi in October 2018 may be just one of the most brazen examples of MBS’s rule. Since then, his pattern of repression has continued. The crown prince is guiding an internal crackdown and continues to target dissidents abroad. And even though he made some promises to reform, there is no accountability within Saudi Arabia because there are no independent journalists, watchdogs, or anyone to hold him accountable.

The superficial changes — opening movie theaters, launching a golf tournament, hosting concerts with international stars — obscure what is really going on in the country. “Basically, it’s changes for the West to see,” al-Hathloul told me. “Society is being muzzled.” She says that the government of MBS disappears Saudis for no reason, “sometimes only because MBS, you know, has doubts about people.” (A tweet can be risky, there are reports of torture in prisons, families get caught up in restrictive travel bans, and those who criticize MBS have been disappeared.)

The crackdown is not just inside Saudi Arabia; a transnational clampdown continues. Dissidents have been threatened on social media, US citizens harassed and entrapped. The former No. 2 in Saudi intelligence, Saad Aljabri, recently told 60 Minutes that he was tipped off in 2018 that MBS had sent a hit team to Canada to go after him, which ended up being held up at customs. Last week, Manea al-Yami, a Saudi political activist living in exile in Lebanon, was killed in what his party called an “assassination.”

There are also promised reforms that the young crown prince has not lived up to. MBS said he would stop the execution of minors, but that policy continues. In 2015, the then-17-year-old Mustafa al-Darwish was arrested for protesting; the Saudi government recently executed him.

Al-Qst, the human rights watchdog run by Saudi exiles, says that an unprecedented 120 executions have taken place so far in 2022, including 81 men in a mass execution in March.

A tweet posted by Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul’s sister, Lina, showing a screenshot of them having a video call following Hathloul’s release after nearly three years in detention.
Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images

MBS pledged to end the guardianship system over women, whereby they are subservient to men and hold little autonomy in society. Saudi Arabia has at long last provided women the right to drive, and religious institutions are being reformed. But aspects of the draconian laws remain: Women can’t be released from prisons, shelters, or correctional facilities without a guardian. Women are still required to have a guardian’s permission to marry, and they don’t have equal authority over children, according to Hala Aldosari, an activist and public health researcher from Saudi Arabia who lives in exile in the United States. She says the system’s implementation varies by region, and there is little information on rural areas, where the authority of guardians is determined largely by families with little margin for women to challenge it in courts.

“We are not in a position to monitor or follow up on any promises being delivered or not because there are no independent media and no independent human rights organizations communicating with people on the ground,” Aldosari told me. “Definitely, human rights are very much gone.”

One Saudi executive I interviewed recently, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, contested these criticisms. He said my reporting was too negative, that MBS had presided over many improvements for those living in Saudi Arabia.

The US State Department’s reporting rebuts this line of thinking.

In its 2021 annual country report for Saudi Arabia is a litany of abuses. Some of the “significant human rights issues” are worth emphasizing: “collective punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual” or “criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity.” Those in Saudi prisons do not live in safety, and the State Department notes “cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees by government agents” and “harsh and life-threatening prison conditions.”

Sixty-five pages of deeply researched documentation backs up those troubling violations.

The State Department goes on to note, “In several cases the government did not investigate, prosecute, or punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity.”

Biden, writing this week on the opinion page where Jamal Khashoggi’s columns once were published, said, “My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad.”

But al-Hathloul told me that by going to Saudi Arabia, Biden is empowering and emboldening MBS. “They always forget how much Saudi exists only because the US protects it,” she told me. “The US has a lot of leverage on Saudi and it seems to forget about it and just bow down to Saudi pressure on oil.” Delaying a one-on-one meeting between MBS and Biden was just one mechanism. Biden could have preconditioned a visit on a prisoner release, as activists have suggested. Other US leverage could come in the form of weapons sales and the possibility, already being discussed, of a regional security guarantee for Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s blatant violations are part of a larger trend in the Middle East. Israel soldiers’ well-documented killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh demands accountability. The Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah has endured a decade of spurious charges, being arrested on and off, and now, serving in an Egyptian prison since 2019, has staged over 100 days of a hunger strike in protest. In Saudi Arabia, Biden will meet the Egyptian president and other Arab leaders, many of whom oversee brutal regimes that disregard human rights. “The politics, the foreign policies of the US, is empowering and supporting this status by not holding any country in the Middle East accountable,” Aldosari said.

Some of these horrifying trends were outlined by Jamal Khashoggi in his articles for the Washington Post. In 2017, he compared MBS to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and called on Saudis to speak out: “We are a kingdom of silence no longer.”

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