Perspectives October 2, 2023
Five Years after Khashoggi Murder, Democracies Must Hold Saudi Regime Accountable for Human Rights Abuses
Excusing or ignoring acts of repression will only make the world a more dangerous place.
Five years ago today, Jamal Khashoggi, a distinguished Saudi activist and journalist living in the United States, was brutally murdered by a hit team carrying out the orders of the Saudi government. His strangling and dismemberment inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was an appalling reminder of the dangers that dissidents—even those who have fled abroad—face from authoritarian regimes.
Despite an unequivocal assessment by US intelligence agencies that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the Khashoggi operation, he has faced no meaningful accountability. Worryingly, the United States and other leading democracies are actually pursuing closer diplomatic and cultural relations with Saudi Arabia, even as its crackdown on dissent grows worse. This reinforces the message that if a despotic regime is strategically important for security, economic, or other geopolitical reasons, democracies will turn a blind eye to its egregious human rights abuses.
While social reforms undertaken by the crown price have earned praise in some quarters, Saudi Arabia remains one of the least free countries in the world, with almost all civil and political rights restricted. Under Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi state has viciously repressed critical speech, including by harassing and intimidating its citizens living abroad. Khashoggi’s murder may be the most notorious case of transnational repression by the Saudi regime, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In 2018, authorities in the United Arab Emirates detained women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and forcibly sent her back to Saudi Arabia, where she endured solitary confinement, torture, and sexual harassment during her initial 10-month imprisonment. Although authorities suspended her prison sentence in 2021, she remains under surveillance and can’t leave the kingdom. Just last month, a Saudi teenager, Manal al-Gafiri, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for posting on social media in support of Saudi political prisoners.
Even members of the Saudi royal family aren’t safe. Between 2015 and 2017, three Saudi princes mysteriously vanished, and all had previously spoken out or acted against the regime. The highest-ranking of the three, the disinherited Prince Sultan bin Turki, a resident of Geneva and then Massachusetts, had been waging a campaign for Saudi political reform and suing the government for allegedly kidnapping him in 2003 when he disappeared with hardly a trace after boarding a government plane in Paris, believing he was going to visit his father in Cairo.
Inside Saudi Arabia, the mildest forms of protest are met with imprisonment and other harsh punishment. Authorities continue to arbitrarily arrest, try, and convict peaceful dissidents. One telling case involves Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi national and mother of two young children who was studying dentistry in the United Kingdom. When she visited her family in Saudi Arabia, authorities unexpectedly summoned her for questioning and arrested her on vague charges of endangering national security. Her supposed offense was sharing social media posts by others that advocated for women’s right to drive and the release of activists like al-Hathloul. After spending 285 days in pretrial detention, she initially received a 34-year prison sentence and a 34-year travel ban. A retrial reduced her sentence to 27 years in prison and a 27-year travel ban. Her children will be in their 30s when she is released from prison, and her husband has started divorce proceedings.
In a disturbing escalation of the regime’s crackdown on free expression, a Saudi court recently sentenced Muhammad al-Ghamdi, a 54-year-old retired teacher, to death based solely on his social media activities. Authorities arrested al-Ghamdi in June 2022 and held him in solitary confinement for four months without legal representation. His online posts—mostly reposts of other users’ antigovernment commentary, to an audience of just eight followers—served as the primary evidence for his conviction on multiple charges, including undermining the monarchy and supporting terrorist ideologies. His health has deteriorated significantly since his arrest, and authorities have denied him essential medications.
Al-Ghamdi’s case may also be part of the Saudi leadership’s broader strategy of transnational repression, in which family intimidation is a well-established tactic. His brother, Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, who lives in Britain and is a vocal critic of the Saudi government, has alleged that the severe sentence is designed to force him to return to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi regime’s brazen abuses at home and abroad pose a serious threat to global democracy, free speech, and human rights. And all of it takes place amid a richly financed Saudi public relations campaign that makes ample use of sportswashing and cultural diplomacy, suggesting that glitz and glamor are sufficient to distract the international community from even the most heinous repression.
As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden vocally committed to holding human rights abusers accountable and making Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in the international community. But the rapid warming of the US-Saudi relationship shows that the Biden administration has not followed up on these promises. The US government cannot and must not give in to the false choice between standing up for democracy and human rights on the one hand and ensuring American security and economic interests on the other. In reality, the two are inextricably linked. And it is far from clear that ignoring obvious human rights abuses has elicited more cooperation from the Saudi government on keeping oil prices low or challenging Iran’s regional ambitions—both policy priorities for the US government.
It is not too late for Washington to pursue a stronger human rights policy toward Saudi Arabia. The warming of relations presents an opportunity for the United States and fellow democracies to use their considerable leverage as security and trade partners to push for greater freedom in the kingdom—for example by conditioning the privilege of hosting the 2030 World Exposition on the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners.
There are also numerous actions that democracies can take to honor the legacy of Jamal Khashoggi and other brave Saudi activists, beyond the scope of their diplomatic relationships with the regime.
First and foremost, democracies should vocally and visibly support human rights defenders around the world who have risked everything to advocate for democratic reforms and a better future. While the primary goal should be enabling them to continue their vital work in their own countries, democracies also have a duty to safeguard the rights of exiled activists through the creation of a special “human rights defender visa,” and to provide ongoing support that allows them to operate without fear and carry on their struggle from abroad.
The United States can also step up efforts to counter transnational repression; one important measure would be to enshrine the Khashoggi Ban into law. The Biden administration has rightly chosen to use its broad powers under the Immigration and Nationality Act to ban people from entering the United States if they have engaged in “serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities” on behalf of a foreign government, and if letting them in would be detrimental to US interests. Making this policy a permanent law would oblige future administrations to deny visas to regime representatives who might use their presence in the country to facilitate transnational repression or other human rights abuses.
For democratic governments and organizations to accept the Saudi regime into the fold without meaningful accountability for its crimes would be a serious mistake. States that treat their own citizens with such contempt are more likely to violate international peace and security, as Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates. A more assertive human rights policy with regard to Saudi Arabia will not only restore democracies’ fidelity to their own values, it will also make them more secure and prosperous in the long run.