Getting US citizens released from Saudi jails would be much easier to accomplish than nomralising Saudi-Israeli ties.
White House adviser Jared Kushner visited Saudi Arabia this week and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The two men have developed a close bond over hours of private chats, sharing their grand visions for the region. The purpose of this trip was reportedly to discuss a normalisation of ties deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, similar to the one the UAE concluded, dubbed the “Abraham Accord”.
If Saudi government statements are to be believed, it is unlikely he will succeed in that mission in the near term. But Kushner can use his continuing dialogue with MBS to do some good. He should leverage his close ties to the crown prince to gain the freedom of Saudi political prisoners, including US-Saudi dual nationals Salah al-Haidar and Bader al-Ibrahim. Saudi Arabia has detained the two Americans without charge since April 2019.
Both al-Haidar and al-Ibrahim are US-born citizens, natives of Virginia and Washington, respectively. They were living in Saudi Arabia when they invoked the ire of Saudi authorities for engaging in what passes as normal political discussion in much of the rest of the world. Al-Ibrahim is a co-author of a book on the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. Al-Haidar is a journalist, whose now-deleted YouTube show, That’s the Point, featured leading Saudi intellectuals and reformers.
Al-Haidar’s real crime might well have been just being the son of Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor at King Saud University and prominent feminist whom Saudi authorities are prosecuting for her past activism to end the driving ban on women. Saudi state security officials arrested Al-Haidar just a few days after they released his mother on bail.
Our sources in Saudi say that the Specialized Criminal Court for State Security, the Saudis’ own version of the star chamber, has finally decided to charge the two men under the terrorism law, based on their comments and tweets, for which they face up to 30 years in prison. Like almost all proceedings in the Special Criminal Court, the trials of the two men will be held in secret.
Given US President Donald Trump’s dire need for foreign policy victories to showcase ahead of the November elections, getting al-Haidar and al-Ibrahim released and bringing them home to the US would be a popular move with both Republican and Democrat voters.
The Saudi crown prince could show the Saudi justice system is working by acquitting the men or giving them light sentences for time served, before allowing Kushner to claim credit for their release. It would be MBS’s gift to the Trump administration, which could use the release to burnish the image of President Trump as the protector of American citizens unjustly imprisoned abroad – an image portrayed in a polished seven-minute video clip presented during the Republican Convention at the end of August.
It is worth noting that MBS is indebted to President Trump and Kushner. The crown prince was isolated and reeling after the savage murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Western democracies spoke in unison, condemning the murder and demanding accountability. Many followed up with action, imposing travel bans, sanctions and suspensions of arms exports.
At MBS’s low point, the Trump administration and Special Adviser Kushner rode to the rescue, providing a crucial lifeline. Jared Kushner reportedly became MBS’s chief champion in the White House, as well as an informal adviser to the crown prince on damage control. Eight months after Khashoggi’s murder, Trump vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fast-tracked the arms shipments to avoid traditional congressional reporting requirements. As far as the Trump administration was concerned, it would be business as usual between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The rest of the world took notice.
Apart from al-Haidar and al-Ibrahim, many other prominent Saudi activists and intellectuals are languishing in jail, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been whipped, electrocuted and waterboarded for advocating women’s rights; Salman Al-Awdah, a prominent Muslim scholar who called for democratic reforms and faces the death penalty and the father of one of the authors; Nouf Abdulaziz, a blogger and activist who has been tortured and sexually harassed in jail; Fadel al-Manasif, a Shia activist and writer serving a 15-year sentence for peaceful activism; and Waleed Abulkhair, a human rights lawyer also serving a 15-year sentence.
The list sadly goes on. For now, it is enough for senior adviser Kushner to secure the release of the two Americans and seek freedom for this small cross-section of Saudi political prisoners. It would not erase the unsavoury taint of Kushner’s friendship with MBS, but it would be big news, deservedly so. A US-brokered release of American and Saudi political prisoners would also provide a signal to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other autocratic allies in the region, that the Trump administration, despite its alarming violations of human rights at home, might one day focus its attention on their own cell blocks of political prisoners.