Saudi Arabia adds an olive branch to the Biden government. On February 10, the kingdom released women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul after 1,001 days in detention, a detention characterized by allegations of sexual abuse and torture. Earlier this year, Riyadh released other political prisoners while announcing judicial reforms and revisions to state-approved textbooks that promote martyrdom and anti-Semitism.
In Washington, democratic control of both the White House and Congress has placed the kingdom in a precarious position. The detention of dissidents by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the careless pursuit of the war in Yemen and the order to order the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi provoked a bipartisan backlash, but the rift with Riyadh is deeper on the democratic side. As a candidate, US President Joe Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”, beat the Crown Prince as someone with “little social redemption value” and promised to reassess bilateral relations.
Despite Biden's fiery rhetoric, there is an opportunity here to historically reset bilateral relations – if both leaders play their cards right. The connection between Riyadh and Washington may be affected by Mohammed bin Salman's actions, but their common strategic interests remain: pushing back Iranian expansionism, balancing the energy markets, fighting a revanchist China and stabilizing the region by expanding the Arab-Israeli peace. Washington and Riyadh can pursue them together – but only if Saudi Arabia curbs its human rights violations.
Al-Hathloul was one of the most prominent detainees in a crackdown on activists that began in May 2018. She was convicted of unsubstantiated charges of inciting regime change and promoting foreign agendas, and was sentenced to six years in prison. A Saudi court suspended nearly half of it, leading to speculation that she might be released this year. In early February, two US-Saudi dual citizens and activists, Salah al-Haidar and Bader al-Ibrahim, who had been detained since April 2019, were released on bail. Just days before Biden's inauguration, a Saudi appeals court reduced the sentence for another dual citizen, Walid al-Fitaihi, and suspended the rest to avoid serving a prison sentence. In addition, three young men sentenced to death as minors for participating in anti-government protests were sentenced to 10 years in prison, including Ali al-Nimr, the nephew of the executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Saudi Arabia also announced major judicial reforms that would codify a legal system that has long been viewed as unpredictable, and where judges traditionally had wide leeway for individual interpretation. This routinely resulted in decisions that appeared capricious and unreasonable. The reforms include four new provisions on criminal law, rules of evidence, commercial transactions and family law. The latter particularly affects women, who regulate issues such as marriage, custody and divorce.
In another notable change, the kingdom removed some offensive content from its textbooks, which has long been a concern of US officials who feared it would exacerbate radicalization and extremism. Positive references to jihad and extremist martyrdom have been greatly reduced – the books no longer support the death penalty for homosexuality, apostasy, adultery and alleged wizardry – and much anti-Semitic references have disappeared.
All of these steps are welcome signs of progress. They are clearly intended to represent Saudi Arabia's goodwill towards a government that has made no secret of its desire to include a sledgehammer in bilateral relations – with Biden already delivering on election promises by ending US support for offensive operations in Yemen . On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jan Psaki told reporters that Biden plans to bypass Mohammed bin Salman and work directly with the aging King Salman, a clear nudge for the young king.
But as is so often the case in Saudi Arabia, it is two steps forward and one step back. Although al-Hathloul is released, she is banned from traveling for five years and awaiting parole for three years. Al-Fitaihi is also subject to a 38-month travel ban. Al-Haider and al-Ibrahim have been released only temporarily and are still being charged with terrorism.
Then there is Raif Badawi, who has been in prison for eight years for blogging. He remains in his cell despite being permanently spared the remaining 950 of the 1,000 lashes that were part of his sentence after Saudi Arabia ended the flogging in April 2020. Samar Badawi, Raif's sister, has been incarcerated with little progress in her detention since 2018 case.
If Saudi Arabia really wants to improve its image and standing with the current US administration, it must implement more permanent and sustainable reforms that go beyond calculated gestures. A travel ban is just another form of government coercion and control. Temporary releases of innocent activists are not really progress. For Mohammed bin Salman, these are just face-saving steps that fall far short of what is required to initiate a course correction with Biden, Congressional Democrats and a growing number of disappointed Republicans.
Mohammed bin Salman can begin with the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience and activists. He should continue advances in judicial reform, particularly in dismantling the draconian guardianship system that deprives Saudi women of their autonomy and makes them vulnerable to abuse.
In geopolitical terms, the Saudis should respond more to Washington's concerns about their relationship with China. Conducting covert nuclear and missile cooperation with Beijing and deepening 5G telecommunications links with Chinese companies like Huawei will only degrade the kingdom's standing in the White House, Capitol Hill and the State Department. Continued contact between Saudi Arabia and Israel and the promotion of normalization by other Arab countries would bring in abundant bipartisan goodwill. Indeed, with their influence, wealth and soft power, the Saudis could also play an important role in promoting the normalization of Muslim-majority countries in South Asia and East Asia, and help strengthen existing peace agreements that are still fragile, such as the recent agreements between Israel and Sudan and Morocco.
For all his rhetoric, Biden is a seasoned foreign policy hand who seems to understand the value of the US-Saudi Arabia relationship and Riyadh's reputation as the linchpin of security in the region. At the same time, Biden's campaign placed an emphasis on the role of values in US foreign policy, so Saudi Arabia shouldn't expect the transactional approach of the past four years to continue.
If Mohammed bin Salman can make this adjustment, he and Biden could initiate a profound reset in US-Saudi Arabia relations. Biden, for his part, can – as already started – restore a more normal order in the conduct of bilateral relations, away from the Twitter diplomacy of former US President Donald Trump. The Crown Prince can carry out long awaited civil reforms and a better human rights record. Whether that resetting occurs – and with it a revitalized partnership that underpins the region's long-term security and stability – depends on the actions and priorities of both heads of state and government. Despite its initial gestures, the ball is still in Mohammed bin Salman's square.