Before Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s rise, activists could ask for legal reforms even if in whispers. Now, they cannot.
By Anchal Vohra
Since Joe Biden’s electoral victory, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has been worried about the future of the bilateral relationship and has been desperately trying to rehabilitate himself by granting small mercies.
Biden has been critical of Mohammad Bin Salman, or MBS, as he is referred to in foreign policy circles, and described the kingdom as a “pariah.” He has said that he would not let the Saudi monarchy off the hook on human rights violations and would stop selling it munitions that it drops in Yemen. Biden has also announced that he would rejoin the nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the war in Yemen, and the disaster that it has been, is widely believed to be MBS’s fault. The human rights record of the kingdom also worsened as he ordered arrests of women’s rights activists and was accused of ordering the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden may even make public the CIA report which found MBS culpable of Khashoggi’s murder.
Over the last month, considering the severity of Biden’s outlook on the kingdom, MBS has taken a number of steps to make good with the new American president.
Firstly, the Saudi terrorism court that sentenced prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison suspended almost half of it. She can now be released in March this year. Loujain, however, is still required to serve three years of probation during which time she could be arrested for any ‘perceived illegal’ activity. She will also be placed on a 5-year travel ban.
The sentence of Walid al-Fitaihi — a US-Saudi physician — has also been halved. He was detained in 2017 under MBS’s anti-corruption campaign and was sentenced to six years in prison. The Saudi government accused Walid of being a sympathiser of the Muslim Brotherhood that the Saudi monarchy sees as terrorists.
Moreover, activists groups that track human rights violations of the Saudi government have noted a drop in executions in the country. According to the European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights Saudi Arabia (ESOHR), the government executed 27 people in 2020. This is the lowest figure on record since ESOHR began monitoring executions in 2013. More than 180 had been executed in 2019.
MBS also conceded on Qatar. In July 2017, Saudi Arabia, along with its ally the United Arab Emirates (UAE), cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar to punish it for deepening ties with Tehran and allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Last month, despite objections from the UAE, the Saudi crown prince agreed to resolve the dispute with Qatar and open trade and travel. The beginning of the resolution of the dispute with Qatar is being seen as MBS’s attempt to show to Biden that he has come of age and can handle differences in a mature way.
Soon after, Qatar offered to mediate between Riyadh and Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described the GCC resolution as “very beneficial”, and even expressed hope that it may pave the path for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Turkey.” He is reported to have said “We hope that our position in Gulf cooperation will be re-established. This will make Gulf cooperation stronger.”
A rapprochement between the two powers would change the future of the region significantly, but it would sideline the Emirates. At the moment, it seems more like a hope than a realistic outcome. Saudis are unlikely to make friends with Turkey, which is the biggest backer of the political Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood whom MBS considers a nemesis of the monarchy.
Many fear that the concessions on human rights are also cosmetic in nature. Even though he has undertaken significant social reforms that allow the youth to enjoy music concerts and sexes to mingle more openly, room for dissent has shrunk. Many young Saudi activists have fled the country fearing persecution.
Before MBS’s rise, activists could ask for legal reforms even if in whispers. Now, they cannot. MBS’s uncle Mohamad bin Nayef who was the west’s point man in cooperation against Al Qaeda is still under house arrest and has not been heard from in months.
As Biden takes charge he faces a critical challenge: How to deal with the kingdom without losing business. Many American firms are investing in MBS’s dream city NEOM that promises flying robots, a fake moon, and a green city in a desert.
It seems Saudis and Emiratis may have already secured a significant concession. Team Biden would reportedly like to include them in the follow-on negotiations on the nuclear deal with Iran. (Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were vexed when Obama held secret negotiations with Iran and kept them out of the loop.)
This week activists organised a campaign calling for Biden to punish Saudi Arabia and stop selling it American weapons. But the arms lobby in the US is much stronger than the activists. It remains to be seen if Biden will do as he said or if he will choose a path that serves American businesses more.