Saudi Arabia arrested two U.S.-Saudi dual nationals and at least 13 other Saudi human rights activists this month as part of a renewed crackdown on dissidents. This escalation indicates that U.S. pressure thus far has proven insufficient to persuade Riyadh to cease its domestic repression.
The dual nationals, Salah al-Haider and Bader el-Ibrahim, join another dual citizen and civil rights activist, Walid al-Fitaihi, whom Saudi Arabia has detained without charges since 2017. Al-Haider is the son of women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, whom the regime arrested in May of last year. This connection suggests that the latest arrests seek to further deter criticism of the regime.
Al-Yousef and nine other women’s rights activists are now on trial, facing charges of making illegal contacts with foreign diplomats and journalists. All 10 rose to prominence for pressuring the kingdom to allow women to drive and to end its system of male guardianship over females. Three of the 10 women – al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, and Roqaya al-Mohareb – are temporarily free on bail.
While the kingdom’s poor record on human rights – particularly the rights of women and minorities – is longstanding, the style of the crackdown beginning last May is unprecedented: Rather than ask the defendants to report to authorities, Saudi Arabia snatched them from their homes and publicly branded them as traitors. Moreover, several of the women were allegedly tortured in prison.
The arrests of the activists is the latest in a long line of unforced errors Saudi Arabia has committed under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including the murder of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi and the needless spat with Canada.
The kingdom’s behavior has severely strained the U.S.-Saudi relationship, particularly in Congress. Lawmakers from both parties have repeatedly denounced Saudi Arabia’s malign conduct. In recent weeks, both the House and Senate passed a resolution to end U.S. military support for the kingdom’s war in Yemen. President Trump vetoed the measure on April 16, and it is unclear whether Congress has the votes needed to override the veto.
To date, the Trump administration has taken only limited action to address Riyadh’s misconduct. In October, Trump enacted Global Magnitsky sanctions against 17 Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi’s death. Last week, the administration slapped 16 of those officials with a travel ban preventing them and their immediate family members from entering the United States.
But President Trump himself appears unwilling to confront the crown prince over the kingdom’s rights abuses, instead preferring to focus on countering Iran and securing Saudi economic investment in the United States. This rhetoric and passivity have likely weakened the deterrent impact of the sanctions.
Saudi leaders are unlikely to address U.S. criticism in the absence of direct intervention from Trump. The president should speak directly with the crown prince and his father, King Salman, to call for the release of the 10 activists on trial and the others arrested more recently – especially those holding U.S. citizenship. At the same time, Trump should at long last publicly express his deep concern about Saudi Arabia’s misconduct while raising the prospect of sanctioning the officials responsible for the detention, torture, and sham trial of the activists.
It is time for the Trump administration to get tough on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. If the Trump administration fails to check Riyadh’s destabilizing behavior, it risks implicitly encouraging the kingdom to continue its crackdown, thereby further weakening U.S.-Saudi ties. The long-term viability of the U.S.-Saudi partnership depends on the kingdom’s readiness to show greater concern for the rights of its own citizens.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow Varsha on Twitter @varshakoduvayur. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.