As Loujain al-Hathloul marked her first day outside prison in nearly three years, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, was bracing for a reaction from Washington to what amounts to a peace offering on his part.
Prince Mohammed views the decision to release the women’s rights activist as an attempt to belatedly engage the new administration, whose strident tone on human rights issues in its early weeks of office has all but conditioned a working relationship with Riyadh on righting the wrongs of the Trump years.
Ending the imprisonment of Hathloul, who during 1,001 days of incarceration became a cause célèbre for US critics of the Saudi regime, was near the top of Joe Biden’s foreign policy to-do list. She had won acclaim during the Obama era for her demands for social change in Saudi Arabia, then languished in a cell throughout the presidency of Donald Trump, who showed no interest in her plight.
Things are very different now, as evidenced by Biden’s quick response to Hathloul’s release. “She was a powerful advocate for women’s rights,” he said on Wednesday. “And releasing her was the right thing to do.”
Two weeks into the job, Biden is yet to make direct contact with Prince Mohammed or his father, King Salman. The silence has been deafening in Riyadh, which at a similar juncture in the Trump presidency was preparing to hold a grand reception for a man who arrived in office disavowing the stances of his predecessor and positioning the US as a transactional ally that paid little heed to human rights.
Trump received the kingdom’s highest honour on his visit to Riyadh and reclaimed the US mantle of strategic ally. The Washington-Riyadh relationship had drifted under Obama, who saw more engagement with Iran as key to de-escalating a region inflamed by war and insurrection.
In his first foreign policy speech, Biden said he was ending US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and removing Yemen’s Houthi movement from the designated terrorism list in an attempt to facilitate a negotiated solution the conflict. In two further blows to Riyadh, he has made clear his intention to return to the Iran nuclear pact, and his director of national intelligence Avril Haines has pledged to declassify the US assessment of the Saudi leadership’s role in the assassination of former Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
All told those measures are unravelling the regional best-friend status Trump bestowed on Riyadh and putting bilateral ties back on a more conventional footing.
When Hathloul was sentenced in late December, Biden’s then incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, affirmed that the new administration would make human rights central to its stance toward Riyadh. “We’ve emphasised the importance of free expression and peaceful activism in Saudi Arabia as it advances women’s rights,” he tweeted. “We look forward to her anticipated early release in 2021.
“Hathloul’s sentencing for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling. As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur.”
Senior Saudi officials see Hathloul’s release as a relatively low-risk gesture, which might spark some goodwill with the Biden administration. Some leading supporters of Prince Mohammed, however, responded with concern that the US would demand more for little return.
Hathloul, who had campaigned for women’s right to drive, was arrested along with other prominent women’s rights activists in May 2018, weeks before Prince Mohammed lifted the ban. The arrests marked the beginning of a complete suppression of the country’s women’s rights movement, and was widely seen locally as an attempt to avoid the perception that political pressure had forced major concessions.
The charges brought against Hathloul included sharing information about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia with Saudi activists abroad, diplomats and human rights organisations. A long-term advocate for human rights, she was detained in 2014 and in her trial, which was widely denounced as a blatant abuse of process, she was accused of exploiting her detention by mentioning it in a job application she made to join the UN.