Lina al-Hathloul is Head of Monitoring and Communications at ALQST, a non-profit organization promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia. Khalid Aljabri is a health tech entrepreneur and cardiologist based in the United States. Abdullah Alaoudh is Research Director for the Gulf Region at Democracy for the Arab World Now and General Secretary of the National Assembly Party.
The three of us grew up in the same neighborhood in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but until recently, that’s where any resemblance ended. Our backgrounds couldn’t be more different: Abdullah grew up in a religious household, his father a renowned scholar; Khalid’s father sat at the highest level of the Saudi government; Lina’s family paved the way for progressive reforms.
If it weren’t for the whims of a tyrannical ruler, our paths would probably never have crossed. But like thousands of Saudis since Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince, each of us has been deeply affected by a level of cruelty that has no place in the 21st century.
Abdullah’s father, Salman Alodah, is behind bars in inhumane conditions five years after being jailed for a harmless tweet while 19 members of his family are barred from leaving the kingdom. Two of Khalid’s siblings, Sarah and Omar, were held hostage by MBS, as the Crown Prince is known, and tortured over their father’s affiliation with MBS’s rival. Lina’s sister, Loujain, was tortured and remains banned from entering the country after helping to lead the campaign for Saudi women’s right to drive. Strict travel restrictions also apply to Lina’s relatives.
It’s been four years since the regime’s assassination of the Saudi activist and post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, but MBS’s all-out crackdown on Saudi critics at home and abroad has only accelerated. Now, as Saudi exiles and driven by the fate of our families and Saudi citizens like Khashoggi, we are united in a mission to resist oppression. We represent a new generation determined to build a better future for all Saudis – a dynamic and committed cohort that has experienced the consequences of rule by an isolated and vastly privileged group. And we call on the West, and the US government in particular, to join us in our cause.
We see both hope and danger in President Biden’s and other Western leaders’ comments on their commitment to promoting a healthier partnership with Saudi Arabia. US-Saudi Arabia relations could be a positive force, but only if they move beyond unlimited arms sales and vague human rights rhetoric.
By engaging directly with the voices of dissidents, including many living in the United States, the administration could not only gain a clearer picture of a geopolitical partner, but also strengthen the forces of democracy that the President so often praises.
In the run-up to Biden’s meeting with MBS in July, we had hopes that the President would raise the cases of our families – and those of many other Saudi victims – publicly and meet with civil society representatives. Instead, Biden’s embrace of the crown prince, sealed with unilateral concessions, has seemingly only fueled the regime’s repression. In recent weeks, the kingdom has handed draconian prison terms to two women, Salma al-Shehab and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, for expressing support for fundamental rights. This latest crackdown on peaceful critics comes just after the Biden administration gave the go-ahead for billions of dollars in arms sales to the kingdom.
Western officials and analysts are calling Biden’s reconciliation with MBS a fait accompli. We live in an era of competition with China and Russia, many argue, and cannot allow Saudi Arabia to drift out of the orbit of the United States. They point to MBS’s youth and welfare reforms and insist that maintaining ties with him is the price of ensuring stability.
Those of us further from MBS are demonstrating that Saudi civil society is willing to engage in our country’s affairs. Our generation has surpassed the government elite in experience and education, and many of us have embraced universal values while remaining proud of our heritage. Now we seek a voice in our nation’s affairs. We want to build a society that grants everyone basic freedoms and a future in which self-determination and the rule of law rule over nepotism.
Recent US administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have expressed support for civil societies worldwide and held meetings with groups from repressive nations. The Biden administration’s unwillingness to do the same is disappointing. Linking directly to segments of Saudi society that are more representative than the ruling class would be both prudent policy and policy wise.
People around the world have taken note of Biden’s lofty human rights rhetoric and his split from the current path of US-Saudi reconciliation. This has dealt a blow to US credibility. Biden can begin to restore it by working with Saudi exiles, encouraging congressional funding for civil society initiatives in the kingdom, and refusing to ruin the regime with blanket military support — especially if MBS doesn’t offer mutual cooperation.
The Biden administration is fixated on restoring ties with our oppressors — but where has that got us? To find a healthier and more sustainable way forward, it is time for Western leaders to hear from the oppressed.