The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion MBS is making Trump look timid and weak

President Trump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office in March 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

SAUDI CROWN Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sent an unmistakable signal to all who hoped he would be moved by the international backlash against his brutal treatment of human rights activists, journalists and other perceived opponents. With the trial of 11 women’s rights advocates still in progress, his security forces rounded up 12 of their supporters , most of whom were detained Thursday. That included two U.S. citizens, in what can only be interpreted as a deliberate provocation.

The crown prince is telling the world — and in particular, the U.S. Congress — that objections to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and to the torture of women seeking the right to drive, have fallen on deaf ears. Maybe that’s because the response has lacked both a practical punch and the support of President Trump.

The new arrests targeted writers, journalists and academics who have supported reforms or had ties to the women on trial. One of the dual U.S.-Saudi nationals, Salah al-Haidar, is the son of Aziza al-Yousef, a renowned women’s rights activist who, along with at least a dozen others, was arrested last year. The other is a writer and physician, Bader al-Ibrahim. The detained also include a pregnant woman, writer Khadijah al-Harbi, and Anas al-Mazroui, a university lecturer whose apparent offense was to mention the names of some of the jailed women during a panel discussion at a book fair.

Ms. Yousef and two other women were provisionally released last week, and there were reports that the other women might also be freed. Instead, the regime has chosen to double down on its repression. The new detainees, unlike those already on trial, are not famous activists or prominent on social media. They posed no political threat to the regime. The only conceivable purpose of their detention is to deter Saudi and international support for the female activists — who have sought such modest reforms as allowing women to travel without the permission of a male relative.

In targeting U.S. citizens, Mohammed bin Salman may also have been responding to Congress. On Thursday, the House passed a resolution, already approved by the Senate, mandating an end to U.S. involvement in the Yemen civil war. The aim of stripping support for Saudi and allied forces is correct: The intervention has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe, and U.N. investigators have documented likely war crimes by Saudi bombers using U.S.-supplied munitions. But other than infuriating the crown prince, the measure, which is subject to veto by Mr. Trump, is likely to have no practical effect.

Mohammed bin Salman has yet to suffer any tangible sanction for his human rights abuses, even though they exceed anything seen in Saudi Arabia for decades. Senate Republicans have held up legislation that would mandate punishment for the murder of Khashoggi. That, along with kid-glove treatment from Mr. Trump, has emboldened the regime.

Mr. Trump has frequently bragged about his record of freeing Americans unjustly imprisoned abroad. But he had nothing to say about the arrest of the two Saudi Americans. As he did in the case of Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old ruler is making the president of the United States look timid and weak.

Read more:

Jason Rezaian: Saudi Arabia has no intention of changing

David Ignatius: How the mysteries of Khashoggi’s murder have rocked the U.S.-Saudi partnership

The Post’s View: Saudi Arabia is torturing a U.S. citizen. When will Trump act?

Jennifer Rubin: A bipartisan challenge to Trump’s fawning over Saudi Arabia

David B. Ottaway: In a book proposal, Khashoggi outlined a U.S.-inspired vision for a new Saudi Arabia