Lina al-Hathloul is head of monitoring and communications for ALQST, a non-profit organization promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia. Khalid Aljabri is a US-based health technology entrepreneur and cardiologist. Abdullah Alaoudh is director of research for the Gulf region at Democracy for the Arab World Now and general secretary of the National Assembly Party.
The three of us grew up in the same neighborhood of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but until recently that was where all the similarities ended. Our backgrounds could hardly be more different: Abdullah was raised in a religious family, his father a renowned scholar; Khalid’s father sat at the highest level of the Saudi government; Lina’s family paved the way for progressive reforms.
Without the whims of a tyrannical ruler, it’s unlikely our paths would ever have crossed. But like thousands of Saudis since Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince, each of us has been deeply affected by a level of cruelty that has no place in the 21st century.
Abdullah’s father, Salman Alodah, remains behind bars in inhumane conditions for five years after being detained for an innocuous tweet, while 19 members of his family are forbidden to go out the kingdom. Two of Khalid’s siblings, Sarah and Omar, were held hostage by MBS, as the Crown Prince is known, and tortured due to their father’s affiliation with MBS’ rival. Lina’s sister, Loujain, was tortured and remains under a travel ban after helping lead the campaign for Saudi women’s right to drive. Lina’s relatives also face strict travel restrictions.
It’s been four years since the regime’s killing of a Saudi activist and post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, but MBS’s sweeping crackdown on Saudi critics at home and abroad has only accelerated. Now, as Saudi exiles, and driven by the plight of our families and Saudi citizens like Khashoggi, we are united in a mission to resist repression. We represent a new generation determined to build a better future for all Saudis – a vibrant and committed cohort who have suffered the consequences of the rule of an isolated and extremely privileged minority. And we call on the West, and in particular the US administration, to join us in our cause.
In the comments of President Biden and other Western leaders on their commitment to fostering a healthier partnership with Saudi Arabia, we see both hope and peril. US-Saudi relations could be a positive force, but only if they extend beyond unlimited arms sales and the vague rhetoric of human rights.
By directly addressing dissenting voices, many of whom live in the United States, the administration could not only get a clearer picture of a geopolitical partner, but also strengthen the forces of democracy that the president praise so often.
Ahead of Biden’s July meeting with MBS, we hoped the president would publicly raise the cases of our families — and those of many other Saudi victims — and meet with civil society representatives. Instead, Biden’s embrace of the crown prince, sealed by unilateral concessions, apparently only fueled repression. In recent weeks, the kingdom has imposed draconian prison sentences on two women, Salma al-Shehab and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, for expressing their support for fundamental rights. This latest crackdown on peaceful critics came hot on the heels of the Biden administration’s green light billions of dollars in arms sales to the kingdom.
Western officials and analysts describe Biden’s reconciliation with MBS as a fait accompli. We live in an age of competition with China and Russia, many argue, and we cannot allow Saudi Arabia to drift out of US orbit. They underline the youth of MBS and social reforms and insist that maintaining ties with him is the price to pay for ensuring stability.
Those of us who are further from the reach of MBS demonstrate that Saudi civil society is ready to participate in the affairs of our country. Our generation has surpassed the ruling elite in experience and education, and many of us have embraced universal values while remaining proud of our heritage. Now we seek a voice in the actions of our nation. We seek to build a society that grants fundamental freedoms to everyone, and a future in which self-determination and the rule of law, rather than nepotism, prevail.
Recent US administrations, both Republican and Democratic, expressed their support for civil societies around the world and held meetings with groups of repressive nations. The Biden administration’s reluctance to do the same is disappointing. Directly interfacing with segments of Saudi society more representative than the ruling class would be both smart policy and smart policy.
People around the world have taken note of Biden’s noble human rights rhetoric and his disconnect from the current path of US-Saudi reconciliation. This has dealt a blow to the credibility of the United States. Biden can begin to restore it by engaging with Saudi exiles, promoting congressional funding for civil society initiatives in the kingdom, and refusing to mess with the regime with general military support — especially when MBS doesn’t. offers no reciprocal cooperation.
The Biden administration is determined to repair relations with our oppressors – but where has that gotten us? To chart a healthier and more sustainable path, it is time for Western leaders to listen to the oppressed.