Saudi Arabia’s release of a prominent activist shows Mohammed bin Salman knows his blank check from the US is over

  • The Saudi activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Bader al-Ibrahim, and Salah al-Haidar were released this past week.
  • Experts say it is no coincidence the releases took place within weeks of Biden’s taking office.
  • Biden has promised to hold the kingdom to account over its rights abuses, something Trump never did.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to release a string of activists and prisoners in recent days is an indication that the kingdom knows its blank check from the US is over.

During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden pledged to rip up what he called the “dangerous blank check” handed to the Saudis by President Donald Trump. In November 2019, he also pledged to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are.”

During his tenure, Trump was slammed for making nice with the crown prince, neglecting to criticise the war in Yemen, detention of peaceful activists, or the murder of the Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi.

Biden appears to be gradually making good on his election promise. Though he is yet to formally speak with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia — or King Salman, the kingdom has already released a number of high-profile activists valued by the US.

On Wednesday, Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights activist, was released from jail after more than 1,000 days. She was detained in May 2018 after she called for Saudi women to be given the right to drive, and was charged with crimes ranging from sedition to advocating for the end of the kingdom’s repressive guardianship system.

She remains in Saudi Arabia under a travel ban until 2026.

“There is no doubt that Loujain al-Hathloul was released as a direct consequence of the election of President Biden,” Thomas Juneau, an academic and expert on Middle East affairs at the University of Ottawa, told Insider.

However, the release is also an attempt to placate the Biden administration, he said.

“Saudi Arabia has clearly released her as a way to preemptively reduce pressure from the US. That being said, it must be understood for what it is: a symbolic gesture meant to appease,” Juneau said.

Sanam Vakil, deputy head of Chatham House’s MENA program, similarly told CNBC: “The concern that human rights would get more focus on the bilateral US-Saudi agenda has accelerated the response and Loujain’s release.”

Ali al-Ahmed, a Gulf analyst, told Insider that it is a marked change from the actions of the Trump administration. “The Trump administration were clearly not doing anything,” he said.

Indeed, Biden welcomed al-Hathloul’s release on Wednesday, and her sister Lina said that Biden’s administration had “contributed a lot in my sister’s release.”

“I would even say thank you Mr. President,” Lina al-Hathloul said.

Bader al-Ibrahim
Dr. Bader al-Ibrahim. Supplied

Loujain al-Hathloul’s release follows the freeing of two other prisoners.

On February 4, two US-Saudi nationals Bader al-Ibrahim, a Saudi scientist, and Salah al-Haidar, the son of the detained women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, were also released.

Both of them were detained in April 2019 and charged with crimes relating to terror offences. Like al-Hathloul, al-Ibrahim remains under a travel ban.

When asked by Insider, the State Department did not say whether it had a role pressing for al-Ibrahim and al-Yousef’s releases.

Instead, the department directed Insider to comments made by spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday. “Promoting and advocating for women’s rights and other human rights should never be criminalized,” Price had said.

Al-Ibrahim and al-Haidar’s releases came two days after Secretary of State Anthony Blinken held a call with families of US citizens detained abroad. “We will continue to use every tool and resource available under US law to bring Americans home,” Blinken tweeted after the call.


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But the fate of another high-profile Saudi activist, Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz, remains unknown.

Princess Basmah, who is a cousin of Crown Prince Mohammed, was kidnapped along with her daughter in March 2019 by Saudi state agents. She broke her silence on Twitter in April 2020 to reveal she was imprisoned but a month later, all her communications were cut.

She has not been heard from since.

Princess Basmah
Saudi Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2017. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Those following the princess’ plight are urging Biden to take action.

“President Biden has a moral obligation towards long-standing allies in Saudi Arabia,” Henri Estrament, an expert on international royal affairs, told Insider. “We are certain Princess Basmah bint Saud falls under this umbrella.”

The Princess was targeted, according to a family member and business associate who spoke with Insider, due to her friendship with the ousted crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef.

“Princess Basmah and her daughter Souhoud Al Sharif are collateral damage in this internal family struggle,” Estrament said.