In mid-March, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to by his initials, MbS), wrapped up a trip the United Kingdom and traveled to the United States (US) for a two-week visit starting Monday, 19 March. MbS’s visit comes at a time when he is attempting to bring desperately needed social reforms to Saudi Arabia, but also as he is spearheading the kingdom’s involvement in war-torn Yemen, overseeing only symbolic changes to the male guardianship system, and supervising systematic persecution and detention of human rights defenders. MbS is making his way around the US using the rhetoric of reforming Saudi Arabia, even as he is ultimately looking to consolidate power within the kingdom. Congress and US policy makers must use his visit to discuss the severity of these issues and encourage the implementation of true reforms.

Women’s Rights

On Tuesday 26 September 2017, the king signed a royal decree announcing that women would finally have the right to drive starting in June 2018 after years of women lobbying. Prior to the decree, Saudi Arabia was the sole country that prohibited women from driving. Hala Al-Dosari, a Saudi women’s rights activist based in the US, has disputed the importance of this, stating “It’s PR, but it’s PR that was triggered by the work of women activists.” Al-Dosari is not wrong to be skeptical of this announcement because in April 2016 MbS claimed, “Women driving is not a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community itself that either accepts it or refuses it.” This announcement now appears to be a political move as it comes when MbS is looking to consolidate his power within the Kingdom and among the factional ruling family. Despite this, conservative Saudis have resisted this development, claiming that allowing women to drive would ‘expose them to evil’, weaken the Saudi family, cause women to be promiscuous, and harm women’s ovaries.

According to Vision 2030 – the kingdom’s plan to diversify its economy – MbS wants to increase women’s participation in the workforce. Currently, women constitute only 22 percent of the workforce, even though over half of Saudi college graduates are female. Through Vision 2030, MbS wants to elevate women’s participation to 30 percent. Recently, in an effort to bridge the gap, Saudi Arabia’s passport control agency opened 140 jobs up to women and the Saudi military also opened up positions to women. Although female applicants need to first seek permission from their male guardian, the only requirements for the positions are to be born and raised in Saudi Arabia, be between 25 and 35-years-old, and have a high school diploma. Unsurprisingly, over 107,000 women applied, demonstrating how eager women are to join the workforce.

While no country in the world pays women as much as men, according to the World Economic Forum, Saudi Arabia ranks the lowest of all Gulf Cooperation Council countries on the list, at 138 out of 144 countries. Among its regional neighbors, Saudi only ranks above Iran, and Yemen and Syria, both of which are in the midst of devastating civil wars.

At the start of his US tour MbS sat down for an interview with 60 Minutes, where he discussed women’s rights. He stated that it did not matter whether Saudi women chose to wear the abaya or an alternative head cover, as long as they dressed in a “decent and respectful” manner. This follows a statement made in February by a senior cleric stating women should not be required to wear an abaya.

In January 2018, authorities allowed women to attend a soccer match for the first time in the kingdom’s history. Previously, they had been unable to attend the games in stadiums because of the prohibition on the mixing of genders. This development opened three prominent stadiums, Riyadh’s King Fahd Stadium, King Abdullah Sport City in Jeddah, and Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd in Dammam, to women and families for the first time. However while women were allowed to attend the match, officials maintained separate entrances for families, where women worked the gates, and with separate prayer areas, cafes, and medical facilities.

More broadly, and despite these developments, the system of male guardianship remains the most significant barrier to women’s equality in Saudi Arabia. With the continued functioning of the male guardianship system, women are still required to have a male guardian who makes critical decisions regarding their life. Women still need to ask permission from their male guardian for a number of privileges including: applying for a passport, traveling internationally, getting married, opening a bank account, accepting scholarships, and getting out of jail, among other things. In a small win, women became able to access government services without seeking their guardian’s permission as of April 2017, although some services and procedures still require guardian permission. Women’s rights activists have been continually calling for the abolition of the male guardianship system. The Saudi government stated it would do so in both the 2003 and 2009 Universal Periodic Review UPR. Despite these promises, the government has taken only minimal steps towards progress in women’s rights.

Arrest of Activists in September

In September 2017, just three months after King Salman elevated MbS to Crown Prince, MbS authorized Saudi authorities to arrest over two dozen clerics, academics, dissidents, and activists in a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent. According to Human Rights Watch, among those arrested were prominent clerics Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omary. Both Al-Awda and Al-Qarni were members of the “Sahwa Movement” in the 1990s that was a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that argued against the imposition of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and that birthed a domestic political and religious dissent movement. They had also argued against the Saudis allowing US troops to enter the kingdom to protect them from a potential Iraqi invasion. Both have also been critical of the government and advocated for democracy and social change in Saudi Arabia. These arrests of dissidents adds to the growing number of peaceful critics and activists in Saudi jails.

Since 2011, at least 25 activists have been arrested on trumped up charges under the kingdom’s broad terrorism and cybercrime laws. Some are facing prison sentences of up to 15 years. Activists like Waleed Abu al-Khair, Mohammed al-Qahtani, and Fadhil al-Manasif are all serving long prison sentences in Saudi Arabia. Al-Khair is the founder of Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia and was the lawyer for a member of the human rights group “Jeddah reformists” as well as members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). In April 2014, al-Khair was charged under the terrorism law and shortly thereafter the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced him to 15 years in prison and a 15 year ban on foreign travel upon his release. Al-Qahtani is a co-founder of ACPRA and was charged in 2012 with “sowing discord and disturbing public order” for circulating a petition that called for the resignation of former Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud for the poor treatment of detainees. In 2013 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a 10 year ban on foreign travel upon his release. Al-Manasif is a photographer and member of Adala Center for Human Rights. He was arrested in 2009 and 2011 for participating in peaceful protests. In 2014 the SCC sentenced him to 15 years in prison, a 15 year travel ban, and a 100,000 Riyals ($26,660) fine for “breaking allegiance with the ruler”, “being in contact with foreign news agencies to exaggerate news and harm the reputation of Saudi Arabia and its people”, and being in contact with international human rights organizations.

Increase in Executions

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has increased the number of executions it has carried out, with a particularly dramatic spike in the months since MbS was named Crown Prince. In 2015, Saudi Arabia executed at least 158 people. This is the highest number of beheadings in twenty years, coming close to their 1995 record of 192 executions. Authorities performed 73 of these executions on foreign nationals. In 2016, authorities executed 154 individuals, the third most executions in the kingdom’s history. In 2017, Saudi authorities executed 141 individuals; 39 prior to MbS’ elevation to Crown Prince in June, and 102 from June to January 2018. Since the beginning of 2018, Saudi Arabia has executed 40 individuals. According to BBC Reality Check, in the last eight months (beginning July 2017), the Saudi government has doubled the rate of executions, corresponding to MbS’ rise. According to the anti-death penalty organization, Reprieve, between July 2017 and February 2018, authorities conducted an average of 16.6 executions a month in Saudi Arabia. Between October 2016 and May 2017 there was an average of 8.4 executions a month.

Corruption Sweep

In yet another sign of his growing influence, MbS launched an anti-corruption campaign on 4 November 2017, during which he authorized Saudi authorities to detain over 200 princes, businessmen, and prominent figures and freeze 2,000 bank accounts. Under MbS, the committee in charge of investigating corruption was empowered to, “issue arrest warrants, travel bans, freeze [bank] accounts and […] take whatever measures [it deems] necessary to deal with those involved in public corruption.” Those who were detained were kept in the glitzy Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. Although MbS claimed the corruption sweep respected due process concerns, these high-profile individuals were held without trial for several months, and were only released after reaching settlement agreements sometimes totaling $1 billion. Reportedly, the goal of the sweep is to retrieve $106 billion that was allegedly embezzled and lost due to fraud in an effort to address the kingdom’s large budget deficit. However, at least 56 Saudis remain in custody and will face a trial after failing to reach settlement agreements, though it remains unclear who they are and what charges they face.

MbS has taken this opportunity to further expand his power, in particular into the kingdom’s security services. For numerous years the kingdom’s power was distributed among branches of the royal family in several security agencies: the military, internal security forces, and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). However, during the anti-corruption campaign, MbS ordered the arrest of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who was once the contender of the throne and commander of SANG. This comes on the heels of a July 2017 royal decree transferring security and intelligence responsibilities from the Ministry of Interior to a new department called Presidency for State Security that answers directly to the King and Crown Prince.

War in Yemen

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been heavily involved in the devastating war in Yemen with its military conducting thousands of airstrikes. Since then, the death toll in the conflict has surpassed 10,000, with the kingdom and its coalition allies’ airstrikes responsible for over 5,000 of those deaths. Some of these deaths are due to Saudi Arabia’s naval blockade which has severely restricted imports of necessary supplies like food and medicine. This has helped lead to what the UN has warned could cause the largest famine in years. Yemen has also been ravaged by disease, with over one million Yemenis being affected by the cholera outbreak, and concerns over a diptheria outbreak, leading to UN concerns that Yemen is facing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

Largely as a result of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen, where a significant portion of the deaths caused by their airstrikes were children, the kingdom was placed on a 2016 UN blacklist of countries guilty of killing children during war. However, Saudi Arabia got itself temporarily removed from the blacklist by pressuring then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Despite this, in 2017, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, placed Saudi Arabia back onto the blacklist, citing the deaths of 683 children and 38 attacks on hospitals and schools. Most recently, a Saudi airstrike that hit a housing complex killed eight women and five girls.

Congress Blocks War Power Resolution to End Support of Saudi-led coalition

On the same day President Donald Trump was scheduled to meet MbS, the US Senate narrowly voted down a bill to withdraw US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen despite numerous allegations of war crimes and the kingdom’s presence on the draft blacklist. The bipartisan Senate resolution was sponsored by Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Chris Murphy (D-CT). Given the timing of the tabling of the resolution, Republican senators were looking to delay the vote until after MbS’s visit by sending it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where it was going to collect dust. US Defense Secretary James Mattis also came out against the resolution, warning that ending support to the Saudi-led coalition would be a mistake and praising the Saudis for their humanitarian efforts, although they are responsible for a significant portion of the man-made disaster. Ultimately while the vote failed 55-44 signaling the US will continue to support the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign, the closer-than-expected vote put policymakers on notice that US support for the kingdom’s war may not be sustainable. But now with MbS in town, Trump wants Saudi Arabia to buy more American-made weapons, regardless of the fact that Saudi Arabia is the world’s second largest importer of US arms already.

MbS’s visit to the US is a propaganda trip meant to present himself as a true reformer rather than a de facto ruler looking to consolidate power, continue a devastating war in Yemen, and detain, persecute, and torture human rights defenders and activists. If MbS wants to be a true reformer he needs to take steps towards real reforms in Saudi Arabia, starting with the release of political prisoners, human rights defenders, and peaceful protesters on death row. He must further ease restrictions on civil society formation and operation and permanently abolish both the male guardianship system and capital punishment.

McKenna Holman is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB