A beleaguered Saudi Arabia is taking modest steps to improve its human rights record as it tries to navigate the coronavirus pandemic and the fallout from plunging oil prices that have rankled the United States and the Trump administration.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the force behind Saudi Arabia’s sweeping changes and risky gambles, is eyeing further steps he hopes will improve the kingdom’s international image, which was badly damaged by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by government agents in 2018 and the war in Yemen.
In the past week alone, the kingdom announced two changes to the law: banning flogging as a punishment and doing away with the death penalty for crimes committed by minors.
People familiar with the crown prince’s plans say future steps are likely to be announced within weeks and months and will involve penal reform so that punishments meted out for specific crimes are no longer the sole purview of judges.
Still, it may not be enough to win Riyadh fresh support in Washington or praise from human rights groups.
The crown prince, while transforming life inside Saudi Arabia, has overseen a parallel crackdown on activists and perceived critics. Among those detained in the prince’s quest to solidify power are dual US-Saudi nationals, women’s rights activists, writers, moderate clerics and senior princes.
Saudi Arabia’s already strained relationship with Congress has worsened in past weeks, including among members of President Donald Trump’s party.
Republicans have accused Saudi Arabia of exacerbating instability in the oil market. That came after the kingdom ramped up oil production and slashed prices following a breakdown in talks with Russia over production cuts before a new deal was reached.
The volatility and price crash in oil, amid already weakened demand due to the coronavirus pandemic, pummelled US shale producers, leading to layoffs in the industry, particularly in Republican-run states.
Some Republican senators warned in late March that if Saudi Arabia does not change course, it risks losing American defence support and facing a range of potential “levers of statecraft” such as tariffs and other trade restrictions, investigations and sanctions.
The backlash couldn’t have come at a worse time for the kingdom as tensions remain high with rival Iran.
The crown prince may be hoping that continuous reforms can revive what had largely been a warm relationship with the Trump administration, which has deployed US troops to the kingdom to deter Iranian attacks. Positive headlines could also help maintain support from Washington even if Trump is defeated in November.
Domestically, the crown prince’s reform efforts are aimed at modernising the country and creating millions of jobs to stave off an upswell in unemployment and discontent among the majority of the population, who are under the age of 35.
To do this, the crown prince has forged a friendship with Trump, his influential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, courted foreign investors and used the country’s sovereign wealth fund to scoop up investments abroad. It has paid millions of dollars to Western public relations firms and consultancies to revamp Saudi Arabia’s image and put together a plan to diversify the oil-dependent economy.
That’s meant pivoting Saudi Arabia away from its ultraconservative Islamic roots which many in the country closely adhere to.
There are, however, hard limits on the kingdom’s reforms, which the prince is dribbling out with the blessing of his father, King Salman.
Executions for crimes committed as minors have been relatively rare, so ending that practice isn’t a major change. It appears only one of the 184 executions in 2019 was for a crime committed as a minor. In addition, the reforms are expected to spare the lives of at least six Shia men who were facing possible death penalty for crimes committed as minors. Many minority Shias in the Sunni-ruled country complain of discrimination as sectarian tensions have soared regionally.
There’s also no indication that Saudi Arabia is curbing the crackdown on perceived critics.
The killing of Khashoggi, a Saudi critic and Washington Post columnist, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by agents who worked for Prince Mohammed cast a pall over the reforms the 34-year-old prince had been lauded for. It also complicated his ability to court foreign investment needed to transform the Saudi economy.
Members of Congress voted unanimously to hold the crown prince responsible for Khashoggi’s death, despite his insistence that he had no knowledge of the operation.
Not long after, Congress voted to end US-assistance in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a conflict that has killed thousands of civilians, displaced millions and pushed people to the brink of famine. Trump vetoed the bill.
Since Khashoggi’s killing, few US lawmakers have travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet Prince Mohammed.
It wasn’t always like this. The young royal had been highly praised in Washington before Khashoggi’s killing for decisions on ending the ban on women driving, allowing concerts and movie theatres and curtailing the powers of the religious police.
These moves allowed young Saudis to mix publicly without strict gender segregation rules. They gave Saudi women more freedom in how they wear the floor-length abaya in public. Women were also encouraged to play sports and work in greater numbers.
Last year, Saudi Arabia allowed women to travel abroad and obtain a passport without the permission of a male relative. For years before this change, women of all ages had to rely on the whims of husbands, fathers, brothers or sometimes their own sons to travel. It led to women fleeing Saudi Arabia to escape abusive homes.
Progress on women’s rights, however, coincided with the arrest of more than a dozen Saudi women right’s activists in mid-2018. Several remain imprisoned and face trial on crimes related to national security and their human rights outreach.
Some have testified of being tortured and sexually assaulted during interrogations by masked men. At least one of the women attempted suicide.