DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation as a brazen leader who has ruthlessly silenced critics and dissent will cast a shadow over his meeting on Friday with U.S. President Joe Biden.
The royal has sidelined top princes who could pose a threat and overseen Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul still looms large — though the prince is credited with pushing through once-unthinkable changes, allowing women to drive and travel freely, permitting concerts, opening movie theaters and de-fanging the once-feared religious police.
Biden initially adopted a tough line with Saudi Arabia, describing it as a “pariah” on the campaign trail. After becoming president, he refused to speak directly with the crown prince and ordered the release of a U.S. intelligence report that implicated Prince Mohammed in Khashoggi’s slaying.
He's changed his tone since, with the administration now focused on isolating Russia, hedging against China and grappling with high oil prices.
“I always bring up human rights,” Biden told reporters on the eve of his Saudi visit but stressed the purpose of his trip is “broader” and designed to “reassert” U.S. influence in the Middle East.
Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, said Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia is “heartbreaking” and accused the U.S. president in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday of backing down from his pledge of prioritizing human rights.
Even after the harsh international criticism over the Khashoggi killing, the prince did not change course. Despite legal reforms to curb the death penalty, only four months ago the kingdom carried out its largest mass execution in recent memory of 81 men convicted on broad terrorism charges, around half of whom were minority Shiites.
“It’s never been a country where you can speak freely, but what we’ve seen in the past five years is a total shutdown of the space for any public criticism or any hint that you might disagree with the authorities,” said Adam Coogle, deputy director for the region at Human Rights Watch.
Here's a look at some of the people targeted in the prince's sustained clampdown:
MOTHER AND SON
Aziza al-Yousef, a mother of five, grandmother and former professor, is a women's rights activist who often hosted Saudi intellectuals at her home.
She was arrested in mid-2018 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 connected to their rights work.
Some of the women said they were abused while in detention by masked interrogators, beaten, forcibly groped and threatened with rape. Al-Yousef and several others were released after 10 months but they face travel bans. Her husband and several grandchildren reside in the United States.
Her son, Salah al-Haidar, is a dual Saudi-U.S. national who lobbied for his mother's release during her imprisonment. He was arrested in 2019 with a group of writers who quietly supported greater social reforms and had ties to the women’s rights activists. He was released only after Biden took office, but remains under travel ban.
CHILDREN OF AN EX-SECURITY OFFICIAL
Omar and Sarah al-Jabri, both in their early 20s, were detained in March 2020. Their father, former senior security official Saad al-Jabri helped oversee joint counter-terrorism efforts with the U.S. and now lives in exile in Canada. He has sued the prince in a U.S. federal lawsuit and accuses the royal of trying to kidnap, trap and kill him.
Omar was sentenced to nine years and Sarah to six-and-a-half for money laundering and unlawfully attempting to flee Saudi Arabia. The family also says al-Jabri’s son-in-law, Salem al-Muzaini, was abducted from a third country, forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia, tortured and detained.
Rights groups say the arrests are aimed at pressuring al-Jabri to return to the kingdom, where his former boss, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, apparently remains under some form of detention.
Al-Jabri told “60 Minutes” last year that Prince Mohammed will not rest until “he sees me dead” and described him as “a psychopath, killer.”
Al-Jabri's son Khalid, who resides in North America, says Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia reflects “an incoherent, no-consequence policy that is unlikely to yield any practical wins for the United States.”
AID WORKER WHO TWEETED CRITICISM
In March 2018, plain clothes officers snatched Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who had recently graduated from college in the U.S., from his work at the Red Crescent office. It would be two full years before his family would hear from him. During that period, his family claims he was subjected to beatings, electrocution, sleep deprivation, verbal and sexual assault.
He's serving a 20-year prison sentence followed by a 20-year travel ban for satirical tweets he had posted critical of the Saudi government.
His sister, Areej al-Sadhan, an American citizen living in California, says he was not an activist but was keenly aware as an aid worker of the economic challenges facing young Saudis.
The case against him may have roots in an elaborate ploy 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 three dozen usernames the kingdom had wanted disclosed.
POPULAR RELIGIOUS FIGURE
In September 2017, another Saudi wave of arrests targeted moderate clerics, academics and writers, including Salman al-Odah, an influential religious figure who was once a leader of the Islamist Sahwa Movement.
Al-Odah, also a former TV show host with 13 million followers on Twitter, had long called on the public to focus less on issues such as beards and dress length, and more on fighting corruption and misuse of power.
He has been in detention for nearly five years, and has yet to be convicted. His family says he faces 37 charges, some connected to his alleged ties with 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 “sympathizing with his brother.”
Still, al-Odah remains respected among religious Saudis because he’s not been ”paid out” by the government, said his son, Abdullah Alaoudh, a leading figure at DAWN rights group in the U.S.
“For the government he’s dangerous because he has that religious authority ... that religious background,” Alaoudh said. “He educated generations of scholars and students.”
Abdulziz al-Shubaily, 38, is among a group of intellectuals and activists imprisoned for belonging to the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, known by its Arabic acronym HASEM. They have been convicted on charges such as “incitement against public order,” “insulting the judiciary” and “participating in an unlicensed association.”
Al-Shubaily is serving an eight-year prison sentence and has an equally long travel ban upon release. He was sentenced in mid-2016 by the Specialized Criminal Court, which was established to try terrorism cases but has been used to try rights activists deemed a national security risk.
In 2013, prominent founding HASEM activists, Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid, were sentenced to 10 and 11 years, respectively. Around 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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Aya Batrawy, The Associated Press