The royal family has sidelined top princes who could pose a threat and oversee Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul still looms large – although the prince is credited with pushing through once-unthinkable changes, allowing women to drive and travel freely, allowing concerts, opening cinemas and removing once feared the religious police.
Biden initially took a hard line on Saudi Arabia, branding it a “pariah” on the campaign trail. After becoming president, he refused to speak directly to the crown prince and ordered the release of a US intelligence report implicating Prince Mohammed in Khashoggi’s murder.
He has changed his tune since then, with the administration now focused on isolating Russia, hedging against China and combating high oil prices.
“I always mention human rights,” Biden told reporters on the eve of his visit to Saudi Arabia, but stressed that the purpose of his trip is “broader” and designed to “reassert” US influence in the Middle East.
Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, said Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia was “heartbreaking” and accused the US president in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday of backtracking on his pledge to prioritize human rights.
Even after the harsh international criticism of Khashoggi’s murder, the prince did not change course. Despite legal reforms to limit the death penalty, just four months ago the kingdom carried out the largest mass execution in recent memory of 81 men convicted on broad terrorism charges, about half of whom were minority Shiites.
“It’s never been a country where you can speak freely, but what we’ve seen in the last five years is a total shutdown of the space for any public criticism or any suggestion that you might disagree with the authorities,” Adam Kugle said. deputy regional director at Human Rights Watch.
Here’s a look at some of the people targeted in the ongoing crackdown on the prince:
MOTHER AND SON
Aziza al-Yousef, a mother of five, grandmother and former teacher, is a women’s rights activist who often hosted Saudi intellectuals in her home.
She was arrested in mid-2018 along with other women’s rights activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, just weeks before the kingdom lifted its ban on women driving. They were branded traitors by state-linked media and faced vague charges related to their rights work.
Some of the women said they were abused while in custody by masked interrogators, beaten, manhandled and threatened with rape. Al Youssef and several others were released after 10 months, but face a travel ban. Her husband and several grandchildren reside in the United States.
Her son, Salah al-Haidar, is a dual citizen of Saudi Arabia and the US who lobbied for his mother’s release during her imprisonment. He was arrested in 2019 with a group of writers who quietly advocated for greater social reform and had ties to women’s rights activists. He was released only after Biden took office, but remains under a travel ban.
CHILDREN FORMER SECURITY OFFICER
Omar and Sarah al-Jabri, both in their early 20s, were arrested in March 2020. Their father, former senior security official Saad al-Jabri helped oversee joint counterterrorism efforts with the US and now lives in exile in Canada. He has sued the prince in a US federal lawsuit, accusing the royals of trying to kidnap, trap and kill him.
Omar was sentenced to nine years and Sarah to six-and-a-half years for money laundering and attempting to flee Saudi Arabia illegally. The family also says al-Jabri’s son-in-law, Salem al-Muzaini, was kidnapped from a third country, forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia, tortured and detained.
Rights groups say the arrests are aimed at forcing al-Jabri to return to the kingdom, where his former boss, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, apparently remains in some form of detention.
Al-Jabri told “60 Minutes” last year that Prince Mohammed won’t rest until he “sees me dead” and described him as a “psychopath, a murderer.”
Al-Jabri’s son Khalid, who lives in North America, says Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia reflects “an incoherent policy with no consequences that is unlikely to yield practical gains for the United States.”
ASSISTANT WORKING THE REVIEW
In March 2018, plainclothes policemen grabbed Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who had recently graduated from college in the US, from his job at the Red Crescent office. It would be two whole years before his family heard from him. During this time, his family claims he was beaten, electrocuted, sleep deprived, verbally and sexually assaulted.
He is serving a 20-year prison sentence followed by a 20-year travel ban for satirical tweets he posted critical of the Saudi government.
His sister, Areej al-Sadhan, an American citizen who lives in California, says he was not an activist, but was well aware as a helper of the economic challenges facing young Saudis.
The case against him may have its roots in an elaborate ruse that sparked a federal case against two Twitter employees accused of spying for Saudi Arabia. The men allegedly accessed the user data of thousands of Twitter accounts, including nearly thirty usernames the kingdom wanted exposed.
FOLK RELIGIOUS Figure
In September 2017, another wave of arrests in Saudi Arabia targeted moderate clerics, academics and writers, including Salman al-Odah, an influential religious figure who was once the leader of the Islamist Sahwa movement.
Al-Odah, also a former TV host with 13 million Twitter followers, has long called on the public to focus less on issues such as beards and dress lengths and more on fighting corruption and abuse of power.
He has been in custody for nearly five years and has yet to be sentenced. His family says he faces 37 charges, some related to his alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab Spring uprisings. The prosecutor is seeking the death penalty.
His brother, Khaled, was sentenced to five years on charges that rights groups say include “sympathy with his brother”.
But al-Odah remains revered among religious Saudis because he has not been “paid off” by the government, said his son, Abdullah Alaoudh, a leading figure at the US-based rights group DAWN.
“For the government he is dangerous because he has this religious authority… this religious background,” Alaoudh said. “Educated generations of scholars and students.”
Abdulziz al-Shubaily, 38, is among a group of intellectuals and activists jailed for belonging to the Saudi Union for Civil and Political Rights, known by its Arabic acronym HASEM. They have been convicted of charges such as “incitement against public order”, “insulting the judiciary” and “joining an unlicensed association”.
Al-Shubaily is serving an eight-year prison sentence and has an equally long travel ban after his release. He was convicted in mid-2016 by the Special Criminal Court, which was set up to hear terrorism cases but has been used to try rights activists deemed a national security risk.
In 2013, prominent founding activists of HASEM, Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid, were sentenced to 10 and 11 years in prison, respectively. About a dozen members of the group are serving prison terms.
Associated Press writer Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.
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