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On Jan. 20, the Biden administration will inherit a relationship with Saudi Arabia that is as troubled as it has ever been, and it will likely be up to Antony Blinken, the president-elect’s pick for secretary of state, to help sort it out.
Over the past four years, a combination of Saudi authoritarianism and American enablement has produced a toxic mix of repression at home and adventurism abroad. The brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the unprecedented humanitarian disaster in Yemen and the crackdown on peaceful dissent and protest within Saudi Arabia are the direct result of a transactional American foreign policy that has turned a deaf ear to the voices of innocent victims.
On Dec. 10, the world commemorates Human Rights Day. Our relatives and thousands of others unjustly imprisoned in Saudi Arabia have little to celebrate. Loujain al-Hathloul has spent the last two and a half years in prison for advocating for women’s rights. She has been tortured and denied family visits and is now on a hunger strike. On Nov. 25, Saudi authorities moved to try her as a terrorist.
Bader al-Ibrahim, a U.S. citizen journalist and doctor, has been languishing without charge in solitary confinement for over 18 months, denied access to a lawyer or contact with his family. In an especially troubling development, a Saudi court on Dec. 8 sentenced Walid Fitaihi, a doctor with dual American and Saudi citizenship, to six years in prison on charges that included illegally obtaining U.S. citizenship.
There are thousands of others, including senior members of the ruling family, who are suffering similar fates. Saudi authorities have banned their fathers, mothers, wives, sons and daughters from leaving the country and threatened them with retaliation for speaking out on their behalf. Saudi officials have gone even further recently by severing contact between some of the kingdom’s most prominent detainees and their families.
To put it in the simplest of terms: Almost every independent thinker in Saudi Arabia has been jailed, murdered, exiled or intimidated into silence.
Not content to brutally police those within its borders, the government of Saudi Arabia has taken to targeting us and our friends. They have deployed their agents to infiltrate Twitter, steal our personal data and use that information to harass us and arrest our followers. They have hacked our cellphones for the purpose of monitoring our calls and accessing our contacts. Their bot armies have labeled us as traitors and outlaws.
We understand that America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is complex and multifaceted. While there are important economic and security considerations that cannot be ignored, and notwithstanding the aberrations of the past four years, the world still looks to the U.S. as a beacon of justice. Millions of Saudis and others around the globe will be watching to see whether and how the Biden administration chooses to exercise its moral authority.
It is long past time to cancel the blank check that Washington has written to Riyadh. If the U.S. is serious about returning to the world stage as a credible advocate for human rights, it must secure the immediate and unconditional release of Saudi prisoners of conscience.
U.S. interests lie in a secure and stable Saudi Arabia. As long as the kingdom remains at war with its own people, however, America’s moral stature is imperiled. Saudi Arabia’s rulers are sowing the seeds of their own destruction by sacrificing justice for power. Such a Faustian bargain serves no one. Helping them manage change in an equitable and responsible way is the surest path to long-term regional stability.
Diplomacy, like politics, is the art of the possible. While advocating for representative democracy in Saudi Arabia is clearly overly ambitious for now, as an ally of Saudi Arabia and for the sake of its own citizens, the U.S. and its able diplomats must bring to bear the full weight of their power and influence on behalf of an oppressed people.
Ali Al-Ahmed is an expert on Saudi political affairs now living in the U.S.
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