Riyadh Seeks Biden’s Forgiveness
Saudi Arabia has freed activists and announced reforms, but must do more to win the new team’s favor.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
Saudi Arabia is extending an olive branch to the Biden administration. On Feb. 10, the kingdom released women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul after 1,001 days in prison, a detention marked by allegations of sexual abuse and torture. Earlier this year, Riyadh released other political prisoners while announcing judicial reforms and revisions to state-approved schoolbooks that promoted martyrdom and anti-Semitism.
In Washington, Democratic control of both the White House and Congress has put the kingdom in a precarious position. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s jailing of dissidents, careless prosecution of the war in Yemen, and reported ordering of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi provoked bipartisan backlash, but the rift with Riyadh runs deeper on the Democratic side. As a candidate, U.S. President Joe Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” knocked the crown prince as someone with “little social redeeming value,” and vowed to reassess the bilateral relationship.
Despite Biden’s fiery rhetoric, there is an opportunity for a historic reset of bilateral ties here—if both leaders play their cards right. The bond between Riyadh and Washington may be frayed by Mohammed bin Salman’s actions, but their shared strategic interests remain: pushing back against Iranian expansionism, balancing energy markets, countering a revanchist China, and stabilizing the region by expanding Arab-Israeli peace. Washington and Riyadh can pursue them together—but only if Saudi Arabia curbs its human rights outrages.
Al-Hathloul was one of the highest-profile detainees in a crackdown against activists launched in May 2018. She was convicted on baseless charges of inciting regime change and working to advance foreign agendas and was given a six-year sentence. A Saudi court suspended almost half of that, prompting speculation that she could be released this year. In early February, two U.S.-Saudi dual citizens and activists detained since April 2019, Salah al-Haidar and Bader al-Ibrahim, 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 remainder of it so he will not have to serve any more prison time. Additionally, three young men who faced death sentences for participating in anti-government protests while they were minors were given 10-year prison sentences instead, among them Ali al-Nimr, the nephew of executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Saudi Arabia also announced significant judicial reforms that would codify a legal regime long seen as unpredictable, where judges have traditionally had wide latitude for individual interpretation. This routinely led to rulings that seemed capricious and unreasonable. The reforms include four new regulations on criminal law, rules of evidence, commercial transactions, and family law. The last will especially impact women, governing issues like marriage, child custody, and divorce.
In another noteworthy change, the kingdom excised some offensive content from its textbooks, long a concern for U.S. officials who feared they worsen radicalization and extremism. Positive references to jihad and extremist martyrdom were sharply reduced—the books no longer support the death penalty for homosexuality, apostasy, adultery, and alleged sorcery—and many anti-Semitic references are gone.
All these moves are welcome signs of progress. They are clearly intended to portray Saudi goodwill to an administration that has made no secret of its desire to take a sledgehammer to the bilateral relationship—with Biden already making good on his campaign promises by ending U.S. 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 snub to the young royal.
But as is often the case with Saudi Arabia, it’s two steps forward and one step back. Though al-Hathloul is released, she will be under a five-year travel ban and must serve three years of probation. Al-Fitaihi is also subject to a 38-month travel ban. Al-Haider and al-Ibrahim have only been released temporarily and still face terrorism-related charges.
Then there’s Raif Badawi, who has languished in prison for eight years for running a blog. He remains in his cell, though he will be permanently spared the remaining 950 of the 1,000 lashes that were part of his sentence after Saudi Arabia abolished flogging in April 2020. Samar Badawi, Raif’s sister, has been detained since 2018 with little progress in her case.
If Saudi Arabia truly wants to right its image and repair its standing with the current U.S. administration, it must pursue more permanent and lasting reforms that go beyond calculated gestures. A travel ban is just a different form of state coercion and control. Temporary releases of innocent activists are not true progress. These are simply face-saving steps for Mohammed bin Salman that stop far short of what is needed to kick-start a course correction with Biden, congressional Democrats, and a growing number of disenchanted Republicans.
Mohammed bin Salman can begin by unconditionally releasing all prisoners of conscience and activists. He should continue progress on judicial reform, especially the dismantling of the draconian guardianship system that strips Saudi women of their autonomy and leaves them vulnerable to abuse.
On the geopolitical front, the Saudis should be more responsive to Washington’s concerns about their relationship with China. Conducting covert nuclear and missile cooperation with Beijing and deepening 5G telecommunication links with Chinese companies like Huawei will only worsen the kingdom’s standing in the White House, on Capitol Hill, and in the U.S. State Department. Continued Saudi outreach to Israel and encouragement of normalization from other Arab countries would reap ample bipartisan goodwill. Indeed, with their influence, wealth, and soft power, the Saudis could also play a significant role in encouraging normalization among Muslim-majority countries in South Asia and East Asia and help bolster existing peace agreements that are still fragile, such as Israel’s latest deals with Sudan and Morocco.
For all his rhetoric, Biden is an experienced foreign-policy hand who appears to understand the value of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and Riyadh’s standing as the linchpin of security in the region. At the same time, Biden’s campaign placed an emphasis on the role of values in U.S. foreign policy, so Saudi Arabia should not expect the transactional approach of the past four years to continue.
If Mohammed bin Salman can make that adjustment, he and Biden could initiate a profound reset in U.S.-Saudi ties. For his part, Biden can restore—as he has already begun to do—a more normal order to the conduct of bilateral ties, away from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter diplomacy. The crown prince can deliver on long-awaited civic reforms and a better record on human rights. Whether this reset materializes—and with it, a reinvigorated partnership that buttresses the long-term security and stability of the region—depends on the actions and priorities of both leaders. Despite his initial volley of gestures, the ball is still in Mohammed bin Salman’s court.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Persian Gulf. Twitter: @varshakoduvayur