Opinion Biden is mending ties with our oppressors. He should listen to us instead.

(Washington Post staff illustration; Biden photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post, other images by iStock)

Lina al-Hathloul is head of monitoring and communications for ALQST, a nonprofit organization promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia. Khalid Aljabri is a health-tech entrepreneur and cardiologist based in the United States. Abdullah Alaoudh is research director for the Gulf region at Democracy for the Arab World Now and general secretary of the National Assembly Party.

The three of us grew up in the same neighborhood in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but until recently, that’s where any similarity ended. Our backgrounds could hardly be more different: Abdullah was raised in a religious household, his father an acclaimed scholar; Khalid’s father sat at the highest level of the Saudi government; Lina’s family paved the way for progressive reforms.

If not for the whims of a tyrannical ruler, it is unlikely that our paths would ever have crossed. But like thousands of Saudis since Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince, each of us has been deeply affected by a level of cruelty that has no place in the 21st century.

Read this piece in Arabic.

Abdullah’s father, Salman Alodah, remains behind bars in inhumane conditions five years after he was detained for one innocuous tweet, while 19 members of his family are prohibited from leaving the kingdom. Two of Khalid’s siblings, Sarah and Omar, have been held hostage by MBS, as the crown prince is known, and tortured because of their father’s affiliation with MBS’s rival. Lina’s sister, Loujain, was tortured and remains under travel ban after helping to lead the campaign for Saudi women’s right to drive. Lina’s relatives also face stringent travel restrictions.

It has been four years since the regime’s murder of Saudi activist and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, but MBS’s sweeping crackdown against Saudi detractors domestically and abroad has only accelerated. Now, as Saudi exiles, and driven by the fate of our families and Saudi citizens like Khashoggi, we are united in a mission to stand up to repression. We represent a new generation determined to build a better future for all Saudis — a dynamic and engaged cohort that has experienced the consequences of rule by an insulated and enormously privileged few. And we call on the West, and particularly the U.S. administration, to join us in our cause.

In comments by President Biden and other Western leaders about their commitment to fostering a healthier partnership with Saudi Arabia, we see both hope and peril. U.S.-Saudi relations could be a positive force, but only if they extend beyond unlimited arms sales and vague human rights rhetoric.

By engaging directly with dissident voices, including many who live in the United States, the administration could not only get a clearer picture of a geopolitical partner but also strengthen the forces of democracy that the president so often praises.

Leading up to Biden’s July meeting with MBS, we were hopeful that the president would publicly raise our families’ cases — and those of many other Saudi victims — and meet with representatives from civil society. Instead, Biden’s embrace of the crown prince, sealed with one-sided concessions, has seemingly only fueled the regime’s repressiveness. In recent weeks, the kingdom imposed draconian prison sentences on two women, Salma al-Shehab and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, for expressing support for basic rights. This latest crackdown on peaceful critics came right after the Biden administration greenlit billions of dollars in arms sales to the kingdom.

Western officials and analysts describe Biden’s reconciliation with MBS as a fait accompli. We live in a time of competition with China and Russia, many argue, and cannot allow Saudi Arabia to drift from the United States' orbit. They point to MBS’s youth and social reforms and insist that maintaining links with him is the cost of ensuring stability.

But those depending on MBS to be a stabilizing figure are sure to be disappointed. This is, after all, the same man who in just a few short years has besieged Qatar; allegedly kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister; threatened and killed Saudi and Western citizens on Western soil; infiltrated Twitter to surveil perceived political enemies; initiated a catastrophic war and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen; and unleashed a wave of domestic and international repression. Fooling ourselves into thinking that MBS’s cosmetic liberalization, such as allowing Saudis to attend music festivals, is a sign of real progress is misguided.

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Opinions coverage of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder
Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Post contributing columnist since 2017, was killed in Istanbul at the consulate of Saudi Arabia in 2018. According to a U.S. intelligence assessment, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill him.
Fred Hiatt, The Post’s editorial page editor at the time, called it “a monstrous and unfathomable act.” He wrote a column titled “Why bring a bonesaw to a kidnapping, Your Highness?
Khashoggi’s columns for The Post described Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman, calling it “unbearable” and comparing him to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Biden, after vowing on the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” visited the country in July 2022. Biden defended the trip in a guest opinion for The Post. Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan wrote that Biden’s trip showed American values are negotiable.
Biden greeted Mohammed bin Salman with a fist bump, which columnist Karen Attiah called “a crass betrayal.” Attiah edited Khashoggi’s columns for The Post.


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Those of us farther from MBS’s reach are demonstrating that Saudi civil society is prepared to participate in our country’s affairs. Our generation has surpassed the governing elite in experience and education, and many of us have embraced universal values while maintaining pride in our heritage. Now, we seek a voice in our nation’s doings. We seek to build a society that grants basic liberties to everyone, and a future in which self-determination and the rule of law, rather than nepotism, rule the day.

Recent U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have expressed support for civil societies worldwide and held meetings with groups from repressive nations. The Biden administration’s unwillingness to do the same is disappointing. Directly interfacing with segments of Saudi society more representative than the ruling class would be both smart policy and smart politics.

People around the world have taken note of Biden’s lofty human rights rhetoric and its disconnect from the current path of U.S.-Saudi reconciliation. This has dealt a blow to U.S. credibility. Biden can begin to restore it by engaging with Saudi exiles, promoting congressional funding for civil society initiatives in the kingdom, and refusing to spoil the regime with blanket military support — especially when MBS offers no reciprocal cooperation.

The Biden administration is fixated on repairing relations with our oppressors — but where has that gotten us? To chart a healthier and more sustainable path forward, it’s time for Western leaders to hear from the oppressed.