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08/29/2022 Saudi Arabia (International Christian Concern) – Just days before U.S. President Biden embarked on his widely disputed diplomacy trip to Saudi Arabia in July, the President reiterated the United States’ commitment to ensuring that foreign governments would be held accountable for their serious human rights abuses. In an op-ed published by the Washington Post, President Biden claimed that his administration “…has made clear that the United States will not tolerate extraterritorial threats and harassment against dissidents and activists by any government.” However, some wonder whether President Biden’s promise remains true with Saudi Arabia’s recent sentencing of Salma al-Shehab, a 33-year-old Ph.D. student at Leeds University and mother of two.

Earlier this month, a Saudi appeals court handed down one of the country’s most harsh penalties for a peaceful activist, sentencing Shehab to 34 years in prison, followed by a 34-year travel ban to the Kingdom. Saudi authorities allege that the woman was “…assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts.” Shehab was initially detained while vacationing in Saudi Arabia in January, only a few days before she had planned to return home to Britain with her husband and sons. One report claimed that Shehab was by no means a leading or excessively vocal Saudi activist. In fact, most of Shehab’s advocacy for women’s rights and prisoners of conscience took place through occasional re-tweets on her personal social media page.

Shehab’s case is particularly concerning for the future of minority speech in Saudi Arabia, especially in light of the 2021 Jamal Khashoggi case, when a Saudi journalist who regularly criticized the policies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was assassinated. For all dissidents in Saudi Arabia, including Christians and other religious minorities who challenge the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam, Shehab’s case sets a precedent that Saudi authorities will continue prosecuting minority beliefs.

Despite Crown Prince Salman’s expressed commitment to modernizing the nation, the decision in Shehab’s case reflects the extremist views that Saudi Arabia has long held against women, political dissidents, and non-Sunni Muslims – and the United States must not tolerate inhumane governments who engage in serious human rights abuses.

During his campaign, President Biden promised to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its gross violations of human rights and establish them as the “pariah” that they are. Part of his pledge included a commitment to ending the sale of military supplies to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which he reneged on last November with a $650 million weapon deal. Additionally, his recent trip resulted in further promises of the U.S. to provide foreign military sales and several other cooperations, negating any sort of improved human rights metric as a requirement for support.

Foreign governments who overlook human rights for diplomatic interests continue to embolden bad actors to persecute minorities. Thus, the Shehab case should come as no surprise to the Biden Administration, which was more concerned with raising issues of clean energy and public health with the Crown Prince rather than the suffering of religious and political minorities in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the United States must fix this bad messaging and make a commitment to ensuring that significant progress towards religious freedom and human rights is a prerequisite for stronger bilateral relationships and any future deals – for if we do not, the continued suffering of minorities is on our hands.

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