Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from Saudi jail on February 10, 2021. Hathloul spent a total of almost three years in prison and was allegedly tortured, although the Saudi government has denied these claims. Hathloul was convicted of posing a threat to state security just six weeks prior to her release, which is thought to be a response to pressure from the U.S. government. Abdulaziz Almoayyad of ALQST noted that “undermining state security” and “serving a foreign agenda” in Saudi Arabia could refer to activities as innocuous as Hathloul’s communication with NGOs and use of social media.
Hathloul was one of a number of human rights activists incarcerated during a crackdown on dissidents following Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s tenure. She advocated to end the requirement of male guardianship for women over twenty-one and to lift the ban on women’s driving. Both reforms were implemented under King Salman in 2018 during Hathloul’s imprisonment. Andrea Prasow of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) told France 24 in a live debate that these rights were accorded “the way a benevolent dictator might grant the privilege of driving” whilst neglecting to acknowledge that women’s rights activists were still being persecuted for calling for the reform. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was named the biggest reformer of women’s rights in a 2020 World Bank Report.
Hathloul’s release is thought to be an attempt to appease the new U.S. administration. Activists have condemned the U.S.-Saudi relations cultivated under the Trump administration because of the country’s abysmal human rights record. President Biden made a campaign promise in 2020 to increase pressure on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights following the death of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. A temporary suspension on arms dealerships from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia has since been implemented. Biden released a statement following Hathloul’s release, proclaiming that “she was a powerful advocate for women’s rights and releasing her was the right thing to do.”
Conditions surrounding Hathloul’s release have sparked concern from human rights activists. Hathloul is subject to a five-year travel ban and a three-year probation. She is forbidden to communicate with the press, resume her activism and engage with social media. Prasow notes that Hathloul’s suspended sentence leaves her vulnerable to re-arrest at any time, for any perceived offence, which may include communicating with organisations like HRW. Such extreme limitations on Hathloul’s movement and speech mean that her rights remain severely restricted despite her release. According to CNN, Hathloul’s sister, Lina, said in a press briefing following her release “What we want now is real justice […] that Loujain is completely, unconditionally free.”
Implementing travel bans is a widely employed tactic to control dissidents dubbed the “invisible leash” by activists. The measure was previously used to control those awaiting trial, but under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have been extended to dissidents and other individuals seen as a threat to the Saudi government. Activist Abdullah Alouadh from DAWN told The Straits Times “[The travel ban] has been used in unprecedented numbers to manipulate the public sphere [it] is one of the Saudi government’s tools for intimidation and pressure.” The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has even placed travel bans on dissidents’ family members, including Hathoul’s parents.
Earlier this week, the U.S. government announced plans for President Joe Biden to speak to King Salman in the lead up to the release of a special report implicating the King’s son in the death of dissident Khashoggi. The call coincides with increasing pressure on the U.S government from activists to improve human rights in Saudia Arabia with new sanctions. Such sanctions include calls to limit Saudi foreign investments in the U.S. from their Public Investment Fund, and issuing a statement refusing to deal with Mohammed bin Salman as Head of State, according to The Guardian. Abdullah Alouadh recommended the use of targeted sanctions to lift the travel ban in an opinion piece for CNN. Such sanctions would be a mark of solidarity signalling to Mohammed bin Salman that “the U.S. stands firmly on the side of civil society.”
Although the latter measures may be sufficient to demonstrate that the new U.S. administration will not form alliances with countries that violate their citizens’ human rights, further action is needed. As Hathloul’s sister Lina pointed out, Hathloul’s release “doesn’t mean that women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have improved.” Ostensible reforms, such as lifting the ban on women’s driving, must be measured against the actual rights and freedoms of women when assessing progress.