- Loujain al-Hathloul is free from prison as Saudi’s leadership extends a friendly hand to Biden.
- The news comes as part of increasing lenience in the country for political prisoners and dissidents over recent weeks.
- However, the international community should maintain pressure on the kingdom in the face of continued human rights abuses.
- Parisa Hashempour is a freelance journalist and International Studies lecturer.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
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.