The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s tough stance on Saudi Arabia is getting results. He shouldn’t relent.

Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul in an undated photo.
Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul in an undated photo. (Reuters)
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JOE BIDEN promised during his campaign to withdraw the “blank check” then-President Donald Trump offered to dictators such as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Just three weeks after the change in administrations, the benefits of restoring that principle to U.S. foreign policy are already manifest.

Since the beginning of the year, Saudi Arabia has carried out two policy reversals long sought by the United States: an end to its three-year-old feud with neighboring Qatar, and the release of prominent political prisoners. Last week, two U.S. citizens jailed by the kingdom since 2019, Salah al-Haidar and Bader al-Ibrahim, were freed on bail. A couple of weeks before that, a third dual U.S.-Saudi citizen, Walid al-Fitaihi, saw his looming prison sentence canceled.

Read this editorial in Arabic.

On Wednesday, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, delivered his most conspicuous concession yet: the release of Loujain al-Hathloul, a 31-year-old women’s rights activist who had become the best-known Saudi political prisoner. Ms. Hathloul was abducted from the United Arab Emirates in 2018 and later held with other women’s activists in a secret prison, where she was brutally tortured. She and the other women were tried on trumped-up “crimes,” such as discussing human rights with Western diplomats.

Senior Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, attempted repeatedly to obtain freedom for Ms. Hathloul and the Americans and end the Saudi boycott of Qatar. They failed. That’s because MBS knew he had the protection of Mr. Trump, who bragged that he had “saved [MBS’s] ass” after the 2018 murder of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a permanent U.S resident and Post contributing columnist. Now that the United States has a president unwilling to grant him carte blanche, MBS is rapidly backpedaling.

That’s not to suggest that the serious problems the crown prince has introduced to U.S.-Saudi relations have been resolved. The war in Yemen that he launched, which has killed thousands of innocent civilians, must still be ended; President Biden has rightly announced the end of U.S. support for Saudi bombing and appointed a senior diplomat to pursue peace talks.

Many Saudis who peacefully sought rights for women and other reforms remain unjustly imprisoned. Even the recent releases were half-steps: Ms. Hathloul and Mr. Fitaihi remain on probation, and they and their families are banned from travel. They could be reimprisoned if they so much as tweet. The two other Americans still face criminal charges.

More significantly, no one involved in the unjust detention and torture of Ms. Hathloul and other activists has been held accountable. Chief among the culprits is Saud al-Qahtani, a close associate of MBS who, according to Ms. Hathloul, was present during her torture. According to a United Nations investigation, he also oversaw the operation to murder Mr. Khashoggi. Mr. Pompeo asked MBS to hold Mr. Qahtani accountable; once again, he was rebuffed.

Mr. Biden promised during his campaign that those responsible for killing Khashoggi and “murdering children” in Yemen would be made to “pay the price” and become “a pariah.” He also said he believed MBS had ordered Khashoggi’s killing; Mr. Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, promised to release a CIA report on MBS’s responsibility. The new administration should now deliver on those commitments. U.S.-Saudi relations should not be normalized until Mr. Qahtani and his boss, Mohammed bin Salman, are held accountable for their crimes.

Read more:

Lina al-Hathloul: My sister sits in a Saudi prison cell as Riyadh hosts a G-20 women’s conference

The Post’s View: A Saudi verdict shows that U.S. pressure for human rights works

David Ignatius: The Biden administration’s Saudi problem

Jason Rezaian: A missed chance to reshape our relationship with Saudi Arabia

Read Jamal Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post