Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits the White House today as alarm grows in Washington about his country’s conduct of the war in Yemen, its misuse of anti-terror laws, and his government’s targeting of peaceful dissidents.
Recent arrests ordered by the crown prince, who’s known by his initials “MBS,” appear to have been fueled more by a desire to sideline political rivals and seize billions of dollars in assets rather than as part of a crackdown on corruption. The latest episode is part of a long tradition of members of Saudi’s ruling family jailing and torturing their political opponents. Such attacks undermine efforts to combat terrorism and promote regional stability.
So does the jailing of peaceful critics. Economist Mohammed al-Qahtani, with a doctorate from Indiana University, is serving ten years in prison for complaining about human rights abuses. Many others remain behind bars for daring to criticize the ruling family’s horrific human rights record.
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights reports that in the last two weeks, three more Saudi human rights defenders—Issa Al-Nukhaifi, Essam Koshak and Fahad Al-Fahad—were sentenced to between four and six years in jail for their peaceful criticism of the regime, and that all were tried and sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court, set up to deal with terrorism cases.
Whether at home or in Yemen, MBS seems more concerned with consolidating his personal power base than introducing reforms that would help combat violent extremism.
During his White House meeting this week, the Crown Prince will no doubt appeal for more weapons from the United States to continue the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, a conflict the United Nations describes as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Last week, Human Rights First and a dozen other leading international humanitarian and human rights organizations urged President Donald Trump to demand that the Saudi leader halt deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Yemen. The Senate is currently poised to vote on whether the United States should continue to provide military support to the Saudi campaign, with Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) expressing concern that it has actually helped al Qaeda and ISIS gain ground in Yemen.
The Crown Prince will also likely use his meeting with Trump to appeal for U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s admission into the Financial Action Task Force, a multilateral body set up to stop terrorist financing. A passing grade from the Task Force would give the Kingdom greater access to financial markets. Despite many national security experts questioning whether Saudi Arabia is doing everything it can to stop the flow of financial and political support for violent Sunni extremists, the Task Force is considering admitting Saudi Arabia, partly due to its record of prosecuting large numbers of alleged terrorists.
But a closer look at who Saudi has been convicting of terrorism shows that many are actually human rights lawyers, journalists, protestors, and even children, who have been condemned to death.
Meanwhile, in 2014 alone, 145 detainees released by Saudi authorities were reported to have gone on to participate in terrorist attacks. In 2015, an individual arrested for suspected ties with al Qaeda was released before trial only to take part in a terrorist attack on the Saudi border.
It is unclear why so many former detainees in Saudi Arabia are engaging in terrorist attacks. The Saudi counterterror law is so vague, and the proceedings of the counterterror court so devoid of due process, it’s possible that innocent people are getting caught up in a dragnet and are then vulnerable to radicalization in prison. This is already a widespread problem in Egypt, another of Washington’s dictatorship allies in the Middle East.
What is clear is that Saudi’s criminal and judicial systems are not working, and authorities are wasting precious time prosecuting peaceful dissidents.
If Saudi Arabia is to be admitted into the Financial Action Task Force, it needs to radically reform its counterterror law, release those wrongly imprisoned, end the lashings and beheadings, and demonstrate it is serious about prosecuting violent extremists.
Without real reform, based on measurable commitments to the rule of law and human rights, Saudi Arabia will remain a dangerously erratic ally, increasingly vulnerable to extremism and instability.