Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated he’s looking forward to fortifying the country’s relationship with the United States now that President Joe Biden is in office.
“It’s great to see America re-engage” on the global sphere again, Trudeau said in early remarks from a forthcoming interview with NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”
When asked by “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd about global policy initiatives Trudeau expects the Biden administration to push forward, Trudeau said Canada and the United States will have to “work together” on several issues, including climate change and solidifying the middle class.
“And of course as a Canadian, I believe that we all need to work together in a more active way, and I’m glad to see the new administration – this is something I spoke with President Biden about directly – it’s great to see America re-engage,” Trudeau said.
“I think certainly there were things that were more challenging under the previous administration in terms of moving the dial in the right direction on the international stage,” he continued. “But at the same time, you know, we all have democracies that go in different directions from time to time.”
Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a major concern and a point of unity between Canada and the United States, Trudeau said.
“The approach that the president is taking on COVID right now much more aligns with where Canada has been for quite a while, grounded in science, grounded in protection of people as the best way to protect the economy, and understanding that, that being there to support people is absolutely essential so that we can get through this as quickly as possible,” he said.
The relationship between the United States and Canada frayed during the years of former President Donald Trump’s tenure.
Trudeau spoke positively of some aspects of the NAFTA agreement between Canada and the United States, saying the renegotiation “helped.”
“We were able to get them to remove some of the steel and aluminum tariffs that they brought in. And we were able to work together on a number of things” with the Trump administration, Trudeau said on “Meet the Press.” “So obviously that need to work closely as neighbors continues, but now it continues with an administration with whom we have a little more in common, perhaps.”
Trudeau’s interview on “Meet the Press” is expected to air Sunday.
Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested for driving a car.
After spending nearly three years locked in a cell, the 31-year-old Saudi Arabian activist is now free from prison. Her initial arrest followed an attempt to film herself driving into the country from the UAE in 2014 (a time when it was illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia). She was released from prison shortly afterward but was later arrested again after testifying at a UN women’s rights committee on the human rights abuses in the kingdom.
The news of al-Hathloul’s release is the latest in a lengthening string of leniences proffered by the Saudi Arabian government in a bid to gain favor abroad. News outlets have dubbed this move an “overture” to the new US president – but Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman will need more than just a few gestures for his publicity campaign to bridge the gap with Joe Biden.
Changing the public image
The news of al-Hathloul’s release is a relief for many. So too are the recently-initiated relaxations in driving and guardianship laws, which had restricted the movement of women for decades.
Despite this change, it is safe (or perhaps, as a journalist, it is not safe) to say, that Saudi Arabia has an abysmal public image. Since 2015, the country has bombed, invaded, and occupied Yemen, and in 2018, Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi’s death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sent shockwaves throughout the world.
On the campaign trail leading up to the 2020 election, Biden summed up what many of us had been thinking, pledging to make a “pariah” of Saudi Arabia. Since then, the country has attempted somewhat of a facelift.
In 2020, executions were down by 85%, and according to a World Bank report the Saudi Arabian economy made the biggest global progress towards gender equality. This is good for Saudi’s international ratings. But put simply, it is just not good enough. To enact real change, Saudi’s leaders must de-escalate the suppression of rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly in the country – a start would be to free other activists such as Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah and Mayaa al-Zahrani, who all still remain behind bars. The kingdom must also make meaningful moves to reassess their impact abroad.
Arms imports to Yemen
Since 2015, the kingdom has waged war against Yemen. The death toll currently sits at around 223,000, including more than 3000 children. While Trump was in power, the US flirted with the Crown Prince. The former president even went so far as to veto a measure to force an end to US involvement in the war, conflicting with the counsel of his top advisors.
Between 2015 and 2019, Saudi Arabia was the world’s largest arms importer, with three-quarters of their weapons coming from the US and 13% arriving from Britain. That has now changed. Biden has called for an end to the war and pulled out US weapon supply as promised. Britain ought to do the same.
Al-Hathloul’s release came less than a week behind Biden’s arms withdrawal announcement. The act is no coincidence; it is an outstretched hand that shows a willingness to play fair. And yet the war continues to wage, the death toll rises.
As seen in the case of Al-Hathloul, the hand that is not shaking is used to suppress dissent as human rights violations continue to take place.
Human rights abuse continues
When finally reunited with her family, Al-Hathloul’s sister asked why she had told them she was okay when she spoke with them from prison. She responded, “What did you want me to do? An electric gun was on my ear. They were ready to electrocute me.”
Amnesty International has been campaigning for her release since her arrest. In a statement, they called for the authorities to bring justice to those who tortured and ill-treated her. Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Lynn Maalouf, said: “Nothing can make up for the cruel treatment she has suffered, nor the injustice of her imprisonment. During her time in prison, she was tortured and sexually harassed, held in solitary confinement, and was denied access to her family for months at a time.”
Yes, 2020 was a year of improved human rights conditions in the kingdom. However, it was also the year border guards opened fire on Ethiopian migrants forced into the Saudi-Yemen border area by Houthi forces, killing dozens. 2020 was the same year that the hundreds of Ethiopians who survived the attack were allowed to enter the country but then later detained and held in unsanitary conditions.
It was the year a Saudi court sentenced a Yemeni blogger to 10 months in prison, a 10,000 riyal ($2,700) fine, and deportation after posting a video on social media calling for equal rights, including for gay people. It was also the year 27 people were executed with some capital convictions based on confessions defendants retracted in court and said were coerced under torture.
Despite the efforts of Al-Hathloul and others, women still face discrimination in marriage, divorce, and parental laws. Men can file lawsuits against spouses, daughters, and relatives under their guardianship for “disobedience”; this can result in a return to the men who filed against them, or even imprisonment. While there is now some glimmer of optimism for genuine change, clearly, a deeper shift is still needed.
“We really see that women empowerment is a lie in Saudi Arabia, that there are no real reforms,” said Loujain al-Hathloul’s Brussels-based sister Lina al-Hathloul.
So while 2021 was the year of Al-Hathloul’s release and will hopefully be the year of much more liberty to come, it is hard to differentiate the PR from the pure intentions. Saudi Arabia will need to work harder to impress Biden, who remains staunch in his plans to “recalibrate” treatment of the kingdom – and still has no plans to call Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. More than a publicity stunt is needed to prove Saudi Arabia is ready to earn its spot at the table of high-rollers, taking up space on the international stage.
Parisa Hashempour is a freelance journalist and International Studies lecturer.
Moderna’s CEO, Stephane Bancel, has been one of the leaders combating the COVID-19 crisis. While Bancel’s company has drawn headlines for the development of their COVID vaccine, few know though that Bancel was once an international student.
And Bancel is not alone, immigrants who were once international students have been the backbone in our fight against COVID-19. America is the leading force behind the COVID-19 vaccine because it is the leading destination of international students in the world.
As a former consular officer who adjudicated student visas though, I witnessed firsthand how the Trump administration intentionally blocked and discouraged these applicants. In order to revitalize this lifeblood of our economy, the Biden administration will need to invest in a wholesale student visa policy to bring them back.
In my time at the State Department, I interviewed thousands of international students seeking to study at some of the best universities in the United States. They were some of the smartest, most successful students abroad, and many were from countries, such as Nigeria, that were labelled “shitholes” by former President Trump.
To even schedule an appointment requires a visa applicant to work through three to five different websites. Applicants must often trek hours or even days across their country to a US Embassy or US Consulate for an in-person interview. After being searched and fingerprinted in a heavily armed atmosphere, applicants interview with visa officers such as myself behind a bulletproof glass window for only a few minutes.
There is often no privacy as applicants answer personal questions about their plans, income, criminal history, and family ties to their native country. Often, cases are placed in Administrative processing in which an application can be pending for years without explanation.
The process was not much better for us on the other side of the window either. Officers, in general, are drawn from the US diplomatic corps. When they joined the Foreign Service, most had dreams of being George Kennan, but instead they end up on the “line,” where they are expected to interview as many as 120 visa applicants per day. Officers have little time to analyze applicants beyond anything but gut instinct and that gut often leads them to deny credible applicants.
This antiquated system is rooted in our post 9/11 security build-up, a 1960s immigration policy that relies on gut judgments from predominantly white visa officers, and sadly the arrogance of those in government who believe that America is so appealing that we can treat visa applicants any way we wish without repercussions.
With COVID-19 hampering international travel for much of 2021, the Biden Administration can use this time to lay the groundwork for a better student visa policy at all levels of government.
The State Department should focus on improving the pre-interview appointment process to be equal or better to the application process of any of our competitor nations.
Second, we should seek ways to permit student visa applicants to renew their visas while in the United States, so they don’t have to return home in the middle of their studies Third, we should create an empowered Ombudsman office to elevate systemic and individual visa issues when merited.
The State Department should also commit to cutting back red tape that creates unnecessary administrative processing backlogs and being more transparent to applicants as to why they were placed in administrative processing in the first place. No applicant should have to put their life on hold for a year while waiting for an answer due to administrative processing. Finally, the Biden administration should work with Congress to secure more funding for the State Department so that they can expand visa interview waivers, invest in remote visa interviewing technology, and provide better training opportunities for officers.
Team Biden can demonstrate to the world that he is not only undoing what Trump did, but he is also acknowledging where we fell short previously and ensuring that America remains – in the hearts and imaginations of the world – an inclusive, diverse nation of various opportunities for everyone.
Chris Richardson, an immigration lawyer, was a US diplomat between 2011 and 2018.