Biden's Visit 'Emboldened' Saudi Arabia to Crack Down on Dissent—Activists

President Joe Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia emboldened the kingdom's leader to escalate his crackdown on dissidents, Saudi activists have said.

Lina al-Hathloul and Abdullah Alaoudh, whose family members have been detained in Saudi Arabia, spoke to Newsweek after a Saudi woman studying in Britain was sentenced this week to 34 years in prison for her activity on Twitter.

Salma al-Shehab, was initially handed a six-year prison sentence after being detained in January 2021, but an appeals court raised it to 34 years followed by a 34-year travel ban.

Shehab was charged with "assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts" and by re-tweeting their tweets. Shehab may still be able to seek a new appeal in the case.

Al-Hathloul and Alaoudh were among those who had warned that Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia would encourage the kingdom's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to escalate a crackdown on dissent.

Al-Hathloul said al-Shehab's harsh sentence clearly shows that the crown prince "feels emboldened, and knows he can double down on repression in all impunity."

"Salma al-Shehab's outrageous sentence might be the first of a new pattern," she warned.

Mohammed bin Salman greets Joe Biden
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP

Saudi Foreign Secretary Adel al-Jubeir, she said, "justified targeting dissidents and affirmed that activism and any kind of dissent is considered terrorism" moments after Biden met with the crown prince last month.

Al-Hathloul is head of monitoring and communications at London-based Saudi rights group ALQST. Her sister is prominent Saudi human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who served a prison sentence and remains under a travel ban.

Abdullah Alaouda, research director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, a nonprofit organization founded by journalist Jamal Khashoggi, echoed her sentiments.

After Biden's visit, the crown prince "was emboldened to get more brutal and rogue as we expected," Alaoudh told Newsweek.

His father Salman Alodah, a prominent scholar, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since 2017 after tweeting his desire for reconciliation between the kingdom and Qatar.

Al-Shehab's sentence is the "beginning of a larger wave and more brutal crackdowns," he told Newsweek. "The responsibility of this wave and victims this time falls on those who emboldened MBS and gave him all what he wanted needed to do this: legitimacy and impunity!"

A White House spokesperson told Newsweek that "exercising freedom of expression should not be criminalized."

"We continue to advocate for human rights defenders at the highest levels of government," the spokesperson added.

"As President Biden said during his visit to Jeddah, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is a key principle of our foreign policy. And while there, the President privately and publicly underscored the United States' conviction that respect for and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms promotes stability and strengthens national security."

MBS greets Joe Biden in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes U.S. President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. Saudi Royal Palace via AP/Bandar Aljaloud

While running for president, Biden had vowed to treat Saudi Arabia like a "pariah" for its human rights abuses. After he became president, he refused to talk directly with the crown prince and ordered the release of a U.S. intelligence report that implicated him in Khashoggi's 2018 slaying.

In an about-face, Biden said he was traveling to the oil-rich kingdom in a bid to "reorient but not rupture" relations with a longstanding strategic partner as his administration grappled with high oil prices, driven partly by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Biden was accused of betraying Khashoggi by traveling to Saudi Arabia and criticism mounted after he greeted the crown prince with a fist-bump.

He later said he had raised Khashoggi's killing at the top of the meeting. "He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it," Biden told reporters. "I indicated that I thought he was."