The release of Saudi activist Loujain Al-Hathloul made international newspaper headlines. Observers anticipate a change in Washington’s relationship with Riyadh notwithstanding the ongoing, eight decade-long alliance between the two countries.
Al-Hathloul’s release was praised by US President Joe Biden, who while giving a speech at the Pentagon on 10 February said, “I have some welcome news that the Saudi government has released a prominent human rights activist. She was a powerful activist for women’s rights and releasing her was the right thing to do.”
Al-Hathloul’s sister Lina tweeted “Loujain is at home,” while her other sister, Alia, thanked Biden, feeling his election contributed to Loujain’s release.
Al-Hathloul was arrested in May 2018 together with a group of women who had campaigned for women’s right to drive, weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted the ban. She was sentenced to five years and eight months last December on charges of attempting to harm national security, serve a foreign agenda and destabilise the kingdom. However, the court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence and backdated her sentence to May 2018. She was also given a five-year travel ban, and she can’t talk to the media for three years.
Riyadh’s Court of Appeals turned down the lawsuit Al-Hathloul filed for torture in prison “due to lack of evidence”. The women’s activist, her family and rights organisations had accused Saud Al-Qahtani, the former adviser to the Saudi crown prince, of attending Al-Hathloul’s “torture sessions”. The Saudi government denied the accusation.
“Loujain recognised him. So, that’s why we are sure about him. She knows he’s a public figure, she knew him,” sister Alia told the BBC. “He was here during the torture session, he was attending the torture session. So, we are sure about him, about his name. We have some information about the others but we are not completely sure.”
Al-Qahtani was sacked following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Following Al-Hathloul’s release, UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, “it is important that others who are in the same condition as her, who have been jailed for the same reasons as her, also be released and that charges be dropped against them.”
Prior to Al-Hathloul’s release two dual Saudi-US citizens who had been detained since 2019 were freed pending trial. Badr Al-Ibrahim, a writer and physician, and Salah Al-Haidar, the son of women’s rights activist Aziza Al-Youssef, are facing terrorism charges.
The sentence against Saudi-US physician Walid Fetaihi, who was detained in 2017, was reduced from six to three years and two months. A Saudi appeals court suspended the rest of his sentence, meaning he will not serve any more time.
The health condition of prominent preacher Salman Al-Ouda remains “not good”, according to his son Abdullah, who tweeted the news. Al-Ouda is awaiting trial on charges of affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a designated terrorist organisation in Saudi Arabia. Al-Ouda was arrested in September 2017 in a campaign that targeted other religious figures, including Awad Al-Qurani and Ali Al-Amri.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, which had adopted an extremist interpretation of Islam, has embarked on wide social and economic reforms. The male guardianship system was reduced and the ban on women’s driving was lifted. Riyadh also allowed entertainment activities, such as parties, exhibitions and singing festivals, making Saudi Arabia a popular destination for Arab artists. The government released a number of decisions to liberate the labour market and facilitate procedures for those wishing to enter or exit the kingdom.
These were all demands that had been voiced locally and globally for many years. International media attributed such reforms to Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman.
Many observers believe the latest batch of releases is driven by Riyadh’s desire to court Washington, which announced the retreat of its support to the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in the war in Yemen, although the US State Department pledged to defend Saudi sovereignty against any attack – in reference to the conflict with Iran.
The kingdom, on the other hand, has received Biden with pressure on the part of oil lobbies that benefited from Riyadh’s decision to reduce its oil production by a million barrels per day, leading to a rise in the price of crude oil. The Saudi move was branded “a kiss of life” to the oil market by US stone oil companies.
The sanctions former US president Donald Trump had imposed on Iran complicated the regional stage, leaving the US in need of its old friendship with Riyadh.
The new US administration will not be able to go back to the 2015 agreement with Iran without the Islamic Republic taking back its decision to increase uranium enrichment, otherwise the US position will weaken in its negotiations to reach a new deal.
As the situation stands, Biden needs Saudi Arabia to tighten the noose on Tehran, by easing the conflict in Yemen, and consequently preventing Iran from interfering in the Yemeni arena, which is a strategically sensitive area for the kingdom.
In addition, the US reviewing of its arms deals with Riyadh will probably not result in ceasing them, since stopping arms exports to Saudi Arabia will provoke the ire of the influential US arms lobby.
Nevertheless, Riyadh would rather not be on the wrong side of Washington and it is striving to improve its international image in the field of human rights. This is something the two countries can agree on.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly