Biden struggles to rein in Saudi Arabia amid human rights concerns

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President Biden came into office calling Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and promising to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy.

But advocates and regional experts say the president has failed to impose serious costs on Riyadh, while emboldening the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, to act with impunity when it comes to respecting human rights, including the targeting of dissidents.

The administration stresses it brings up the issue of human rights in its meetings with Saudi officials, continuing to raise the 2018 murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi hit squad operating with the approval of the crown prince.

But it also views the relationship between Washington and Riyadh as vital.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, standing alongside the Saudi foreign minister at the State Department on Thursday, said the two countries work together on “very significant issues, from climate to energy to Yemen to Iran.”

The secretary added that he would also talk “about the continued progress we hope to see in Saudi Arabia on rights.”

But critics argue that the Saudis are dismissing such rhetoric from the administration.

Advocates say that the disappearance and jailing of dissidents is ongoing, allegations of torture in prison are widespread and decades-long sentences are out of proportion with the alleged crimes.

“I think the Saudis are showing their utter contempt for Joe Biden’s human rights policy,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project who has served four presidents as an adviser on the Middle East.

“They’ve had more than eight months now to size up the administration and they’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not serious on this issue.”

Areej Al Sadhan, whose brother Abdulrahman was sentenced to 20 years in prison and a 20-year travel ban in Saudi Arabia for running a satirical Twitter account that was deemed critical of the Kingdom, is calling for the president to more forcefully hold Riyadh to account.

He’s one of 89 U.S. persons that the nonprofit group Freedom Initiative estimates have been disappeared, detained, or under travel bans at some point in 2021 in Saudi Arabia, according to a report they published this month.

A Saudi appeals court upheld Abdulrahman’s four-decade sentence last week, prompting a statement of condemnation from the State Department.

A senior administration official, in response to an inquiry from The Hill, said that senior U.S. Government officials have raised Abdulrahman’s case directly with senior Saudi officials, including Prince Mohammed.

The official said that national security adviser Jake Sullivan, during his trip to Saudi Arabia last month, also raised the cases of American citizens detained in the country. 

Al Sadhan said that isn’t enough.

“Clearly there wasn’t enough accountability to the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and that, by itself, has emboldened the Saudi officials to continue on committing human rights abuses,” she said in an interview with The Hill.

“One example is what’s going on with my brother and my family directly.”

Al Sadhan is an American citizen and a constituent of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The Speaker has been vocal over concerns that Abdulrahman was allegedly tortured while in prison and called his sentence an “assault” on freedom of expression. 

“I’m very appreciative of what my government is doing, the U.S. government, the State Department, and especially Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she’s been super supportive,” Al Sadhan said.

“But the point is that we really need more, we need the White House to really condemn this publicly and to take action, real action to stop those abuses.”

Al Sadhan said Biden’s tough rhetoric on Saudi Arabia during the presidential campaign and within his first few weeks in office raised hope that political prisoner cases, like her brother’s, would be dismissed or have sentences reduced, with Riyadh looking to curry favor with Washington.

In the weeks leading up to, and following, Biden’s inauguration, Saudi Arabia did appear to take steps to address some of its most criticized behavior.

This included releasing in February the prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who weeks earlier was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for protesting the ban on women driving.

Biden held a call with Saudi’s King Salman at the time where he “noted positively” the release of al-Hathloul and other Saudi-American activists.

That same month Al Sadhan said her family received an encouraging call from her brother who said he expected to be freed from jail. The call came ahead of the release on Feb. 26 of a declassified U.S. intelligence report linking Prince Mohammed to the Khashoggi murder.

Al Sadhan said the situation with her brother changed rapidly when Prince Mohammed was not included in a sanctions package levied by the administration targeting Khashoggi’s attackers.

“Within a week, when MBS [Prince Mohammed] knew he was let off the hook, quickly that changed, and my brother was dragged into secret hearings, sham trials, a list of vague, absurd charges without any real evidence, and my brother was basically sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and a 20-years travel ban,” she said.

The White House defended their decision to hold off on sanctioning the crown prince, with press secretary Jen Psaki saying at the time the sanctions package “structurally addresses an unacceptable pattern of targeting, monitoring, harassment and threats to dissidents and journalists.” 

But Cathryn Grothe, a research associate at the human rights and democracy-focused organization Freedom House, said they continue to document Saudi authorities targeting outspoken critics and journalists with surveillance, disproportionate criminal penalties and harassment online and in the real world.

“There’s still hundreds of journalists and activists, bloggers, government critics who are continually harassed,” Grothe said.

“We also know, I think just in the last year, there have been reports of incredible torture in Saudi prisons, the mistreatment of those held in detention. All of this together paints a very grim picture.”

Grothe added that Abdulrahman’s case stands out in particular for the 40-year sentence, calling it “one of the longest we’ve seen handed out for, specifically an online offense, at least in the last few years.”

Varsha Koduvayur, geopolitical analyst with the security analysis firm Valens Global, said the fallout from the Biden administration’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan has made it more reliant on regional partners, with close cooperation prioritized over efforts to press for human rights reforms.

“The administration has put itself in a bind where it cannot be as forceful on human rights without fearing some loss of cooperation with Saudi Arabia or a disruption to its regional strategy,” she said.

“There was space to have pursued human rights while also preserving the areas of cooperation with Saudi Arabia, but the administration did not pursue this vigorously enough. It’s a bind of its own making, though.”

The administration is unlikely to come under much pressure from Congress.

“The unease on the Hill is almost exclusively in the Democrat party, I don’t think the Republicans, by and large, care one iota,” said Reidel of the Brookings Institution.

Democrats offered some criticism of the president for refusing to sanction Prince Mohammed, introducing legislation aimed at sanctioning and banning the Crown Prince from entering the U.S.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who represents the district where Khashoggi lived, succeeded in having the House pass in April his bill “Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act.” It was referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Yet these efforts appear to have died away amid fraught partisan battles on the domestic policy agenda and a focus on other, Middle East, regional policy goals.

This includes engaging Riyadh in ending Yemen’s Civil War, taking steps to normalize relations with Israel and advance rights for Palestinians, stonewalling China from the region and countering Iran’s destabilizing actions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen as well as reigning in its nuclear ambitions.

Still, the Biden administration says it is focused on human rights.

“Human rights is a staple of our conversations with partners around the world and that includes with our Saudi partners,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a response to a question from The Hill.

“We have not been shy about speaking up when it comes to shortcomings in that arena… we made very clear that we were disappointed by reports that the Saudi court upheld the prison sentence and the travel ban given to Abdulrahman al Sadhan.”

Tags Antony Blinken Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Gerry Connolly Jake Sullivan Jamal Khashoggi Jen Psaki Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Saudi Arabia

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