On October 02, 2018, the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was forcefully injected with a sedative before he overdosed, died, and had his body dismembered by five people. This all happened at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey under the jurisdiction of the Saudi Arabian government. Khashoggi had ties to the royal family, previously advised the Saudi government, and wrote for major publications within the country before writing for the Washington Post in the United States. Nonetheless, the 59 year-old was killed on foreign soil as he tried to finalize a divorce, which he needed in order to marry his new Turkish fiancée.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has garnered a notorious reputation for silencing opposition such as Khashoggi, who wrote a column criticizing crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Washington Post. Over the last few decades, the kingdom has gone on a crusade, detaining, torturing, and even killing political dissidents. This comes, however, in direct contradiction to the mask with which Saudi Arabia disguises itself on the world stage. A member of the G20 and the owner of the 18th largest GDP in the world, the oil-rich nation presents values of innovation and progress to the international community. This has resulted in support from key states including the US, Canada, China, and neighbouring Gulf nations, who have turned a blind eye and allowed Saudi Arabia to continue its human rights violations behind the scenes.
The treatment of Loujain al-Hathloul is a profound example of the breaches of humanity carried out by the Saudi regime in recent years. She is a graduate of the University of British Columbia and a Saudi human rights activist, who is best known for her role in the Women to Drive Movement. She was imprisoned for 900 days in May 2018, shortly before the ban on women driving had been lifted, and her trial has been moved to the Specialised Criminal Court, or ‘terrorism court’ as of November 25, 2020.
Saudi Arabia was ranked 146th out of 153 countries by the World Economic Forum on the basis of gender equality in 2020. This disparity was even more evident prior to 2018 when women were not allowed to drive, a key contributor to the Women to Drive Movement. Loujain al-Hathloul was an essential advocate for the movement, and she also campaigned for the end of the male guardianship system in the country. Most of her activism took place on social media and she soon became known as one of the most outspoken women in Saudi Arabia, earning her the watchful gaze of Saudi authorities. Al-Hathloul sought to use her fame and influence among sympathizers to stand for election in November of 2015, the very first time women were allowed to both vote and stand in Saudi municipal elections. While she was recognized by many as a candidate, her name never reached the ballot.
Loujain al-Hathloul was first detained by Saudi authorities for 73 days in 2014 after attempting to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates. On May 15, 2018, she was abducted from the United Arab Emirates and detained for a second time, albeit with no charges or trial. Almost a full year later on May 13, 2019, al-Hathloul was charged with promoting women’s rights and calling for an end to the male guardianship system, along with contacting foreign agencies and other activists. Furthermore, on November 25, 2020, the activist’s case was referred to the Saudi Specialised Criminal Court, which deals with terrorism cases, described by Amnesty International as ‘an instrument of repression to silence dissent’.
“They’re criminalizing activism,” are the words of Loujain’s sister, Lina al-Hathloul. In an interview with Channel 4 News (UK), Lina described her sister’s condition and treatment in Saudi captivity. She stated, “Her and other activists are being electrocuted, waterboarded, flogged, beaten, deprived of sleep, force-fed,” and the United Nations Committee on Women’s Rights has expressed grave concern over Loujain’s well-being.
Loujain al-Hathloul’s case comes at a pivotal moment for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With the recent defeat of President Donald Trump in the 2020 US Election, Saudi Arabia may lose a source of leverage used to fuel past human rights violations in the country. President-elect Joe Biden has made clear that he will reevaluate the superpower’s relationship with the Gulf nation stating he will, “… make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” Saudi Arabia, however, does not seem threatened by the change. In only the past week, four women activists faced trial in Saudi courts, one of them being al-Hathloul. This move also comes in contradiction to pressure from Saudi’s G20 counterparts to release women activists before the nation hosted the 2020 summit in its capital, Riyadh.
At a time where innovation and progress are of the utmost importance to the Saudi regime, prisoners like al-Hathloul remain locked up for wanting rights in their country. Crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has declared his plan for the kingdom in what is known as Vision 2030. He declares, “It expresses our long-term goals and expectations and it is built upon our country’s unique strengths and capabilities. It guides our aspirations towards a new phase of development – to create a vibrant society in which all citizens can fulfill their dreams, hopes and ambitions to succeed in a thriving economy.”
The Saudi agenda is based purely on the goals and aspirations of the royal family. It violates and marginalizes many groups such as Shia Muslims and women through the use of strong central authority and strict enforcement of arbitrary laws and regulations. The government condones and conducts the unfair treatment of activists and those who aim to change the discriminatory status quo in the powerful, oil-rich state. Other dominant nations, like the United States, Canada, and China have turned a blind eye to the actions in the kingdom, resulting in the persecution of vulnerable groups and the limiting of freedoms of all residents.
The change in the dynamic within the United States is an encouraging facet towards the improvement of conditions for activists in Saudi Arabia. However, the economic leverage held by the Saudi government can alter the amount of pressure they might face from the broader international community regarding their explicit disregard for equality in freedoms for certain groups within their borders. If changes in the Gulf nation are to be enacted, they must be urged from the outside, as activists in the kingdom are severely mistreated and face horrendous consequences for striving for something so simple as the right for a female to drive.
Edited by Helia Mokhber
Photo credits: “Justice for Jamal: The United States and Saudi Arabia One Year After the Khashoggi Murder” by April Brady, published on September 26, 2019, licensed under Flickr Creative Commons. No changes were made.
Santhindu Wijesooriya is a first-year student at McGill University. He plans to double major in International Development Studies and Political Science while minoring in Finance. Santhindu is currently a Staff Writer for Catalyst and looks to grow his knowledge and experience in International Development through this.