No doubt emboldened by US President Joe Biden’s recent visit and matey fist bump with Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, a Saudi judge has just handed out the longest ever prison sentence to a peace activist and women’s rights campaigner for posting a few critical tweets about the regime: an obscenely long 34 years. If this had happened to Salma Al-Shehab in Afghanistan there would have been global headlines and international outrage, plus a weighty statement from the UN Secretary-General, no doubt, but the draconian sentence in Saudi Arabia has only drawn a muted response.Yet just two days ago Biden vented his anger about the attack on novelist Salman Rushdie and ended his statement with these words about the freedom to share ideas with neither fear nor favour: “These are the building blocks of any free and open society. And today, we reaffirm our commitment to those deeply American values in solidarity with Rushdie and all those who stand for freedom of expression.”
What about Salma Al-Shehab’s right to freedom of expression? Where does the so-called free world’s most powerful man stand on that? Or does the right to criticise those in power only extend to those of us living in the West?
When it comes to women’s rights Biden has plenty to say about Afghanistan, but like previous US presidents, he remains silent on human rights abuses and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman is the de-facto ruler of the kingdom and must have been highly amused when Biden went cap in hand to his court in Jeddah last month after previously vowing to make Saudi a “pariah” state following the October 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The hugely symbolic fist bump played out in front of the world’s media was just the start of a ritual humiliation which has cost the Biden administration dearly. It was obvious that such a meeting would initiate the rehabilitation of the prince in the west, less than four years after Khashoggi’s murder, for which the CIA laid the blame at Bin Salman’s door.
However, with oil prices at their highest for more than a decade and Washington trying to isolate Russia, Biden was like a drug addict desperate to score a hit. This oil junkie of a president knew that he had to publicly kiss and make up with the world’s top exporter of crude oil. I’m just amazed that we didn’t see this encounter play out on Jeddah’s Corniche or Tahlia Street.
As it happened, though, Biden left the kingdom without the assurances he sought on either human rights or oil, despite humiliating himself in the process. Sadly, it now seems as if this ill-thought-out meeting has also had a negative impact on anyone expecting justice in Saudi Arabia’s courts. Emboldened by this craven display from Biden, the end result is reflected in the prison sentence handed down at Al-Shehab’s appeal against the initial six-year sentence imposed last year.
She is a PhD candidate at Leeds University in Britain, so once I’ve finished writing this I will be straight on to my local MP, citing her educational connection to this country to demand some action by the Foreign Office. Of course, I already know that the response from Whitehall will be weak and lacking in the sort of courage and moral fibre which defines people like the brave Salma Al-Shehab.
I’ve written to the Foreign Office before about my dear friend Dr Ahmed Farid Moustapha who was taken by Saudi security forces in Ramadan 2020 when he was 82 years old. I also raised his plight on the terraces of the newly Saudi-owned Newcastle United Football Club last season informing the kingdom that it was most welcome to buy our club but it couldn’t buy our silence over human rights abuses. Dr Moustapha is still locked up somewhere in the brutal Saudi penal system along with thousands of other political prisoners who dared to exercise their right to freedom of speech.
As well as her prison sentence from the Specialised Criminal Court of Appeal on 9 August, Al-Shehab was given a meaningless travel ban, also of 34 years. And we now know that after she was arrested on 15 January 2021 she was subjected to lengthy interrogation over a period of 285 days before being brought before the court. The charges filed against her by the Public Prosecution included “providing succour to those seeking to disrupt public order and undermine the safety of the general public and stability of the state, and publishing false and tendentious rumours on Twitter.”
All of this was done under various sections of the kingdom’s Counter-Terrorism Law, plus one year under Article 6 of the Anti-Cybercrime Law, and a discretionary five years added by the presiding judge who deserves his own special place in Hell for delivering such a vile sentence.
Until the international community finds the guts to stand up to Riyadh it has no right or moral authority to lecture, punish or sanction anyone else over the state of women’s rights in the world today. Our rights cannot be cherry-picked at the whim of feckless, weak men like Joe Biden. We know that he is never going to stand up for women in Saudi Arabia, so who will?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.