Biden Adviser Slams Saudi Arabia Over Prison Sentence for Leading Women's Rights Activist

Criticism of the ruling against Loujain al-Hathloul potentially signals a new approach from the Biden administration toward Saudi Arabia

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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An image from a video released by Loujain al-Hathloul shows her driving towards the UAE-Saudi border days before her arrest in Saudi Arabia, November 30, 2014.
An image from a video released by Loujain al-Hathloul shows her driving towards the UAE-Saudi border days before her arrest in Saudi Arabia, November 30, 2014.Credit: Loujain al-Hathloul via AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan slammed Saudi Arabia for sentencing a prominent women’s rights activist to nearly six years in prison under the guise of combating terrorism.

Sullivan said on Monday the “sentencing of Loujain al-Hathloul for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling,” adding that “the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur.”

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Al-Hathloul was among a handful of Saudi women who openly called for the right to drive before it was granted in 2018 and for the removal of male guardianship laws that had long stifled women’s freedom of movement and ability to travel abroad.

She has been imprisoned for the past two and a half years, and was convicted of charges including agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda and using the internet to harm public order. She has 30 days to appeal the verdict.

Sullivan’s criticism comes as U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law continues to work toward a breakthrough in Israeli-Saudi ties, as Haaretz reported, though the Saudis might prefer to wait for the Biden administration to take power before making any dramatic gestures.

Jake Sullivan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's choice to be his national security adviser, speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 24, 2020Credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/ REUTERS

The criticism may also portend a Biden administration’s harsher tone toward the Saudis than previously held by the Trump administration. Biden previously called the kingdom a “pariah” during the presidential campaign, promising to confront the Saudis on its human rights record and broadly promising to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Biden also vowed to ensure accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, promising to “make sure America does not check its values at the door in order to sell arms or buy oil.”

Haaretz revealed that Biden’s previously undisclosed criticisms of Saudi Arabia made in 1986, calling the kingdom “no more than a collection of 500 princes and their families.” Biden also said that “the fatal mistake in U.S. policy occurred in 1982, when it decided to strive for strategic consensus in the Persian Gulf. The result was a shift of the center of gravity from America’s true friend, Israel, to others [referring to the sale of warplanes to Saudi Arabia].” 

Al-Hathloul’s case is one of the more prominent examples of the Saudi crackdown on women’s rights, drawing international criticism, though it is not an isolated case. Reem Abdellatif, a foreign correspondent who spent several years working with Saudi-run organizations and spending time in the Saudi kingdom, recently wrote in Haaretz that talk of a “new” Saudi Arabia providing improved rights for women is simply a slick PR campaign. 

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