Loujain al-Hathloul, the prominent Saudi women’s rights activist who demanded the “right” for women to drive, was sentenced on December 29 to five years and eight months in prison and barred from traveling for a period of five years. Because the court suspended two years and ten months of her sentence and included time already served in prison, Hathloul could be released in March. She now has 30 days to appeal.

What were her “crimes”? Asking for the “right” to drive. And asking to be treated like an adult.

The sentence comes after what human rights groups have called a sham trial—as Saudi trials are by any normal legal standard, since they lack due process and are typically conducted behind closed doors.

It also comes amid Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) plan for bringing reform to Saudi Arabia (KSA) and modernizing Saudi society.

Vision 2030

Unveiled in 2016 and dubbed Vision 2030, the stated intention of MbS’ plan was “to create a vibrant society in which all citizens can fulfill their dreams, hopes and ambitions to succeed in a thriving economy.” The goals included reducing the kingdom’s dependence on oil by creating a robust private sector and diversifying the kingdom’s economy. The strategy focused on developing areas such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation, and tourism.

While there has been some success in financial areas and digitalization of government services, experts say that Vision 2030 has largely been a failure. Despite investing huge sums of money, energy, and effort, job creation and growth of the private sector have fallen short, foreign investment has been lackluster, and revenues from the annual Hajj religious pilgrimage were curtailed because of the pandemic. The situation is so bad that the IMF projected the Saudi economy would contract by 2.3 percent in 2020.

Lack of Fundamental Human Rights

Apart from the purely economic factors, it is hard to see how MbS’ laudable vision of citizens fulfilling their dreams can come about when the kingdom fails to respect people’s fundamental rights and civil liberties, especially those of women.

In Saudi Arabia, women remain second class citizens, treated not even as adults, but as children incapable of independent identity, decision, or action, without approval from a male relative.

In Saudi Arabia, women remain second class citizens, treated not even as adults, but as children incapable of independent identity, decision, or action, without approval from a male relative.

Although Saudi women over the age of 21 can now obtain a passport without their guardian’s approval, the perpetuation of taghayyub (a legal provision that means “absent” in Arabic and which has long been used to constrain women who leave home without permission) and “filial disobedience” still impose de facto constraints on women’s liberty.

Allowing women the “right” to drive in June 2018 was mere window dressing. Ordering the round up just two weeks before that of the feminists and women’s rights activists who had demanded to be allowed to drive and to be freed from the oppressive system of guardianship that governs all aspects of Saudi women’s lives exposed the façade of reform. So does the prison sentence handed down to Hathloul.

Lack of Due Process and Rule of Law

Hathloul was one of the many women arrested and was subsequently held in detention for more than two years while her trial was pending. It was not until November 2020, almost two years after her trial began in the Criminal Court in Riyadh, that the prosecutor surfaced new, trumped-up “terrorism” charges and a judge moved the case to the Special Criminal Court originally established for terrorism cases, but now used routinely to try political dissidents.

The revised charges arose from Hathloul’s communications with European diplomats and foreign journalists, her application for a job at the United Nations, and simply attending conferences and seminars.

During her more than two-year detention, Hathloul was subjected to beatings, torture, sexual assault, and other human rights violations, according to rights groups and her family.

Human rights organizations have strongly condemned the sentence handed down to Hathloul.  The Project on Middle East Democracy issued a scathing statement lambasting “the Saudi government’s mockery of justice and the rule of law.”

The Charade of Reform

The sentencing of Hathloul also reflects MbS’ disdain for democracy as he has over the last several years moved toward complete authoritarianism and has paid only lip service to reform.

Real reform was the sort of thing that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had called for before he was brutally assassinated and dismembered with a bonesaw inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Although several so-called rogue operatives were convicted of the murder in sham trials similar to Hathloul’s, the mastermind, the Crown Prince himself according to the CIA and the UN Special Rapporteur, has not been called to account and probably never will be, much less be brought to justice for the atrocity.

While he was alive, Khashoggi had called for freedom of expression and freedom of the press. He had advocated for the ability of citizens to constructively criticize the Saudi government’s economic policies and openly debate what was good for the future of his country.

For that, his voice was silenced. But his legacy lives on in Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the brainchild of Khashoggi launched in September 2020 to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

“Loujain’s conviction on ridiculous ‘terrorism’ related charges reveals the lie behind MbS’ Vision 2030 plan.”

“Loujain’s conviction on ridiculous ‘terrorism’ related charges reveals the lie behind MbS’ Vision 2030 plan,” Michael Eisner, General Counsel of DAWN, told Inside Arabia.

“True reform must be girded in the rule of law. It must elevate the reformers as harbingers of change, not attack, persecute, and imprison them.”

KSA’s Litany of Human Rights Violations

Saudi Arabia’s litany of human rights violations over recent years demonstrably shows that due process and the rule of law simply do not exist in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is fourth in the world—right behind China, Turkey, and Egypt—in the number of journalists locked up, according to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The Saudi government forcefully displaced and silenced members of the tribe that stood in the way of MbS’ mega playground for the rich and famous, the new city of NEOM.

The kingdom has sentenced religious scholars to death for tweets. The most atrocious of these perhaps is Salman Alodah, charged with 37 counts of tweeting against “tyranny.” What was his tweet? A call for reconciliation with Qatar: “Oh God, set their hearts for the good of their people.”

Alodah has been in prison without trial for more than three years, and has been tortured, according to his son Abdullah Alaoudh, who now directs research for DAWN. In November 2020, the regime allowed Alaoudh to talk by telephone from prison with his family.

With KSA and Qatar’s January 4 agreement to a truce, Alodah’s wish has been realized, but, like Hathloul, it is doubtful he will be released because he is serving as an example to anyone who challenges MbS that there will be no mercy.

Indeed, Alodah’s situation may get worse. For MbS, keeping prisoners indefinitely in detention “is a bulwark of his internal message to frighten,” Abdullah told Inside Arabia. “It’s a warning against speaking up on anything.”

For MbS, keeping prisoners indefinitely in detention “is a bulwark of his internal message to frighten.”

Saudi Arabia has conducted mass executions. It has handed down a death sentence to a 13-year-old boy, and it has stripped citizens of their citizenship.

In early December 2020, the kingdom sentenced a US citizen, Dr. Walid Fitaihi—a Harvard-trained doctor who had returned and built a hospital in his home town of Jeddah, and who had been detained since the Crown Prince’s November 2017 round up of royals—to six years in prison for tweeting about the so-called Arab Spring uprisings and supposedly obtaining US citizenship without the requisite Saudi approval.

At the same time as paying lip service to affording women their human rights, the kingdom developed an app called Abshir to implement and enforce the guardianship system and keep women in their place.

This is the current Saudi Arabia that the outgoing Trump administration has been so enamored of—still operating in the dark ages and continuing to violate international law and human rights daily.

The Challenge for America: Realigning US-Saudi Relations

The last four years of American laissez-faire have enabled the Crown Prince, ever fearful of challenges to his succession, to take increasingly draconian measures to quell potential dissent and criticism. While Trump and his family have benefited from warm relations with the Saudi Crown Prince and from the millions spent by the Saudis at his hotels, America has not.

The US has lost standing on the world stage, and the Biden-Harris administration cannot afford to continue to turn a blind eye.

It is perhaps not insignificant that Hathloul’s rapidly issued sentence—one much lighter than the 20 years urged by the prosecutor, which would be more typical for a terrorism conviction—comes only weeks before the new US administration takes over. The Saudi gambit here may be that imposing a “light” sentence will draw less scrutiny.

President-elect Biden should fulfill his campaign promise not only to reassess, but to realign the US-Saudi relationship.

President-elect Biden should fulfill his campaign promise not only to reassess, but to realign the US-Saudi relationship because of the kingdom’s appalling human rights abuses.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s designated National Security Adviser, tweeted that “Saudi Arabia’s sentencing of Loujain al-Hathloul for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling.”

Actually, it is more than just “troubling.” It is egregious. For the Biden administration, this is an opportunity to regain some of America’s moral ground and soft power lost during the Trump administration.

A new American narrative is needed along with a renewed commitment to uphold the ideals we champion in theory, but too often abandon in practice.

As the change in administration brings an opportunity to recalibrate US-Saudi relations, the most pressing question is clear: Will Biden look the other way? Or will there be consequences for Saudi Arabia if it fails to engage in real reform and continues its systemic and ongoing human rights abuses?



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