October 30, 2018 | Policy Brief

To Preserve U.S.-Saudi Ties, Riyadh Needs to Reset its Rights Record

October 30, 2018 | Policy Brief

To Preserve U.S.-Saudi Ties, Riyadh Needs to Reset its Rights Record

Salah Khashoggi, eldest son of murdered Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi, arrived in the U.S. last week after the Saudi government lifted the travel ban against him. The move, coinciding with the Saudi public prosecutor’s statement that Jamal Khashoggi’s killing was premeditated, is a concession from Riyadh to deescalate a crisis that has severely tarnished its image and damaged its standing in Washington.

The Saudi government issued a travel ban on Salah Khashoggi, a dual Saudi-U.S. citizen, in November 2017, following his father’s decision to go into self-imposed exile in the U.S. after the kingdom began a crackdown against writers and dissidents. The ban’s reversal occurred just days after Saudi media circulated a photo of Salah shaking hands with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman, which prompted a firestorm on social media. Salah’s release also follows pressure from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who campaigned for the son’s return to the U.S.

Releasing Salah Khashoggi is a good move for Riyadh to correct course after the country’s murder of his father. But it alone will not quell the international fallout over Khashoggi’s murder, nor will it alone turn around the growing anti-Saudi tide in Washington.

Saudi Arabia faces a bipartisan backlash over Khashoggi’s death. At the Manama Dialogue, the normally reticent Defense Secretary Jim Mattis criticized Saudi Arabia’s role in the murder, saying it “undermines regional stability.” Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the kingdom’s traditional allies on Capitol Hill, vowed to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Calls to block future arms sales are growing in strength; Republican lawmakers who opposed the move last year are now joining the chorus of voices willing to scrap the transactions.

Riyadh must now reset its rights record and release the dozens of academics, writers, and activists it has detained over the last year. Those still imprisoned by Riyadh include: Raif Badawi, who was flogged in public and is serving a 10-year sentence for running a liberal-minded blog; economist Essam al-Zamel, for critiquing the government’s plan to take Saudi Aramco public; academic Abdullah al-Maliki, for supporting human rights; women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza Yousef, and Eman al-Nafjan, for campaigning for reform in the kingdom; and activists Mohammed al-Rabea and Ibrahim Modeimigh, who served as Loujain al-Hathloul’s lawyer. And this is only representative of a much longer list.

Saudi Arabia should release the innocent activists and writers it has detained. Their unjust and unlawful detentions soil the kingdom’s image and risk alienating its most important ally, Washington.

In the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, the Trump administration must thread a needle as it seeks to punish the kingdom while trying to salvage a strategic relationship. It can do so, even as it focuses on the kingdom’s rights record, by keeping all leverage options on the table. If Riyadh wants to preserve its partnership with the U.S., it can take a first step by improving its human rights record and course-correct towards policies that reflect U.S. values.

Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Gulf. Follow her on Twitter @varshakoduvayur.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Arab Politics Gulf States