ANALYSIS// MIDDLE EAST/WOMENS´ RIGHTS// These are busy times in Saudi Arabia. The internationally recognised women’s activist Loujain al-Hathloul, imprisoned in 2017, has just been released despite a recent sentence of 6 years. In addition, the kingdom has converted a number of death sentences into 10 years in prison, lifted the trade blockade against Qatar and resumed diplomatic cooperation with the country.To top this off, the Crown Prince has announced the introduction of new laws to ensure greater legal certainty for citizens. The reason for these sudden changes are rather intriguing and has primarily to do with the new administration Washington. For the Crown Prince, who pretty much was given a carte blanche to do anything he wanted, under former President Trump, the new US government is causing him somewhat of a headache.
The Saudi women’s defender Loujain al-Hathlou was released yesterday. She recently received her
sentence after being imprisoned back in 2017 for fighting for women’s right to drive. Loujain al-Hathloul was kidnapped in the United Arab Emirates in 2018, where she lived and taken to Saudi Arabia and imprisoned.
She was arrested on the usual grounds of suspicion of terrorism and ‘contacts abroad’; an
appropriately broad term used against anyone who dares to speak up against Saudi Arabia’s Crown
Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Since imprisonment in 2018, al-Hathloul has been subjected to torture and hunger strike. Her
imprisonment received great international attention. In 2019, along with two other imprisoned
women’s rights defenders, Nouf Abdelaziz and EAN al-Nafjan, she was awarded the PEN/Barbey
Freedom to Write Award, which is given to prominent defenders of freedom of expression.
At the end of 2020, al-Hathloul was sentenced to 6 years’ imprisonment. Given the already
accumulated time from 2018, and with a shortening of the 6th anniversary of the sentence, al-Hathloul would have to be released in March. However, according to a tweet from her sister, she has already been released now.
New milder winds are blowing in Saudi Arabia — why?
Overall, there seems to be slightly milder winds blowing in Saudi Arabia these days compared to the
previous draconian times.
A number of death sentences against prisoners in the country’s prisons have been converted into 10
years imprisonment instead. Although executions have not been stopped altogether; there has been a
marked decrease in the number from 184 in 2019 to 27 in 2020.
In a similar attempt to present a more moderate façade, the country recently decided, following intense
pressure from the outgoing Trump administration, to lift the trade embargo imposed on Qatar in
2017 on the grounds the country supported terrorism. These accusations are now all in the past, as
all diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have now been resumed.
Wobbling support for the lifting of the blockade against Qatar
Not everybody are quite as enthusiastic about this recent reconciliation with Qatar. The United Arab Emirates
have expressed some doubts about Qatar’s insistence that the country does not support terrorist movements such.
Qatar does not conceal its open support to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is
regarded by several countries, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, as a terrorist
movement and a threat. The Emirates see the Brotherhood as a genuine threat to its monarchy. In
other words, the support for the lifting of the blockade against Qatar is at best somewhat wobbly.
From a strategic point of view, Saudi Arabia simply cannot afford to maintain the blockade against
Qatar. In fact, instead of punishing Qatar both politically and economically, the blockade has had a
somewhat reverse affect; it has pushed Qatar into the arms of Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy, Iran.
What was meant as an exercise and demonstration of power by Saudi Arabia and its
allies, ended up as rather tame set up without the desired outcome: Qatar did not
close the Al-Jazeera TV channel, they did not close the Turkish air base and they did not end their
ever-closer cooperation with Iran. These were all conditions put forward in 2017 by Saudi Arabia,
Bahrain, Emirates and Egypt to refrain from the implementation of the blockade against Qatar.
New laws to ensure legal certainty in Saudi Arabia
At the same time, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced a number of legislative
measures to ensure greater transparency and legal certainty in the country’s laws. This is of
particular importance with regards to laws relating to the personal status and the rights of movement
which will affect unmarried women in the country.
After all, this is a country that within a very short space of time has released women’s rights activist Loujain alHathloul and other political prisoners, converted death sentences, abolished the blockade against
Qatar and introduced new and more transparent laws in order to ensure better legal certainty. That is
quite an impressive achievement everything considered.
Where does this eagerness for changes come from? After all, considering this is the very
same Crown Prince who ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi because he
was perceived as a threat to the Crown Prince. In other words, having introduced these recent changes are definitely drastic steps for the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
The art of appeasing the new US administration
At the risk of being perceived as a cynic, it is only suitable to point out that these political actions
are primarily due to the fact that the country has been busy trying to appease the new US
administration in Washington.
The Saudi Crown Prince was pretty much given carte blanche under President Trump, and
particular by his son-in-law Jared Kushner. This is not the case with the new administration under
President Joe Biden. Not only has the new president expressed his wish to look into the human
rights situation in the country. But also, Senator Robert Menendez is the new Chair of the Senate’s Foreign
Policy Committee. Mr. Menedez is known as a particular harsh critic of the Saudi-Arabian royal family and as a notorious hardliner towards the country, and a strong advocate of Israel.
Mr. Menendez was also behind a 2019 draft law on sanctions against Saudi Arabia in the aftermath
of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. There is no doubt that the appointment of Menendez to this
powerful position is yet another thing to add to the list of matters of concern to the Crown Prince.
The Iran nuclear deal
President Biden has indicated an interest in bringing the Iran nuclear deal back on track after
Trump withdrew the US from it. And even though it has also been stated that this will require a
genuine Iranian response to this issue, this particular matter is of huge concern to Saudi Arabia.
No doubt, the Crown Prince will be feeling the new US administration in Washington
breathing down his neck, when the administration will be looking into the Khashoggi murder in 2018. The murder
which Trump refused to take action against under the pretence of not wanting to create a conflict
and eventually risking jobs in the American weapons industry.
A US lawsuit for attempted murder
Last but not least, the Crown Prince is involved in a rather embarrassing trial in Washington,
brought on by the close friend of the former and dethroned Crown Prince bin Nayef, and trusted
intelligence officer Saad al-Jabri, against the Crown Prince himself.
For many years, Saad al-Jabri held a highly trusted position in the intelligence services under the
former Crown Prince bin Nayef. When he was removed from this position by the current Crown
Prince, al-Jabri too lost his position. A position in which he was considered as the focal point
between Saudi and US intelligence services. In other words, this is a man with a considerable insight
into state secrets. A man who has now launched a case against the Saudi Crown Prince.
A court case of this magnitude will most likely cause some serious concern to say the least in the royal palace.
Saad al-Jabri managed to leave Saudi Arabia for Canada before the large-scale campaign launched in 2018, in which the Crown Prince ordered the imprisonment of a wide range of high-ranking princes and other family members; all held in the Ritz Hotel in Riyadh.
A few months ago, al-Jabri brought action against the Crown Prince before a federal court in
Washington, citing a series of alleged assassination attempts against his person. By its very nature, it
is a punitive case and thus very unknown territory for the Crown Prince to be suddenly involved in legal
proceedings before a US Federal Court.
As part of the accusation against the Crown Prince, al-Jabri states that the Crown Prince sent his 50
man, known as the Tiger Squad, to Canada in October 2018 in order to kill him. However, when the
group was refused entry, Saudi Arabia instead attempted to have al-Jabri´s daughter brought to
the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, an equally unsuccessful attempt.
However, a few days later, Jamal Khashoggi went to the very same consulate in Istanbul, was murdered and dismembered by order of the Crown Prince. According to court documents, shortly after the assassination of Khashoggi, al-Jabri was once again attempted assasinated by the Tiger Squad.
To make matters worse, Adam Schiff of the US Congress has recently introduced a bill called The Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act. This law will stop US aid to countries and governments that have
committed human rights violations against journalists.
These are indeed busy times in Riyadh, with the Crown Prince doing his best, trying to get on a good standing with
Biden’s administration. His free-riding days under President Trump does indeed seem to be over.
Top photo: Wikimedia Commons