I do not know her and have never met her. Yet, for some reason, every time I see her photo — every single time — my heart breaks.
Perhaps it is her smile, brimming with hope and idealism, imbued with a youthful optimism. And knowing that that smile is gone, that she is being imprisoned and tortured inside a dark dungeon in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
This is Loujain al-Hathloul, a 30-year-old Saudi human rights activist who had long campaigned against the ridiculous ban on women driving inside the kingdom, as well as the country’s discriminatory male guardianship system.
The message from the Saudi authorities was clear: Reforms will happen on the royals’ timetable — and only with royal approval. This will be a top-down, not bottom-up, process, driven by dictators, not democrats.
As a consequence, Saudi women may now have the right to drive — but the Saudi women who fought, protested, and campaigned for that right have been stripped of all of their rights. They are detained, behind bars, incommunicado; the victims of vicious torture and abuse.
Still, they haven’t given up. Al-Hathloul has displayed astonishing courage and strength. Her family says that Saudi officials had been willing to release her if she agreed to deny, on camera, that she had been tortured.
“She said she had been held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder,” her sister, Alia al-Hathloul, who lives in Belgium, wrote in a New York Times op-ed in January, citing a conversation that Loujain had with her parents during a rare visit to see her in prison. “My parents then saw that her thighs were blackened by bruises.”
Let’s be clear: It’s easy for liberals and conservatives in the United States to denounce Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses, especially for the torture of political prisoners, but the U.S. is shamefully complicit in this brutal mistreatment of al-Hathloul and her fellow rights activists.
For a start, as a key ally of the Saudi government, the Trump administration could insist on her release at any time. Remember, Jared Kushner considers Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, a close personal friend, and the two men regularly message one another on WhatsApp. So why hasn’t Kushner texted his pal MBS and urged him to free her? Why hasn’t his wife and fellow White House official, Ivanka Trump, who went to the Gulf earlier this month to brag about her work empowering women across the Middle East, publicly called for the release of al-Hathloul from her unjust detention in Saudi Arabia? What’s stopping them? It was a point rammed home by my friend Hasan Minhaj, host of “Patriot Act” on Netflix, in front of a star-studded audience at the Time 100 Gala back in April.
“This is a very powerful room, and, you know, I know there’s a lot of very powerful people here,” Minhaj said, in a clear dig at Kushner who was sitting a few tables away. “It would be crazy if — I don’t know, if there was just like a — I don’t know, like, if there was a high-ranking official in the White House that could WhatsApp MBS and say, ‘Hey, maybe you could help that person get out of prison because they don’t deserve it,’ but that would be crazy. That would be — that person would have to be in the room, but that’s just a good comedy premise.”
Second, as a recent Reuters investigation revealed, a group of former White House officials and U.S. intelligence contractors helped the United Arab Emirates build a secret cybersurveillance unit called DREAD, which has been accused of involvement in al-Hathloul’s arrest and rendition to Saudi Arabia.
As Reuters explained:
In 2017, operatives hacked the emails of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, after she tried to defy a ban against women driving in Saudi Arabia, a former DREAD operative said. Three years earlier, al-Hathloul, who was studying in the UAE, had been arrested by the Saudis after trying to drive across the border into Saudi Arabia and jailed for 73 days.
DREAD operatives monitoring al-Hathloul gave her the codename Purple Sword.
In 2018, just weeks before a royal decree allowed Saudi women to drive legally for the first time, UAE security forces arrested al-Hathloul again in Abu Dhabi and placed her in a private jet back to her home country.
“It’s very disappointing to see Americans taking advantage of skills they learned in the U.S. to help this regime,” Loujain’s brother, Walid al-Hathloul, who lives in Canada, told Reuters. “They are basically like mercenaries.”
Third, the Saudis’ Future Investment Initiative, or “Davos in the Desert,” summit in October featured an array of top U.S. business leaders who had boycotted the event only a year earlier, in the wake of the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet, as the Washington Post reported, “senior executives from blue-chip firms including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and BlackRock” returned to Riyadh this year, with many of them framing their decision to participate again “as an effort to promote change in the kingdom.”
Consider this tweet over the weekend from Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and a former official on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, lauding the “largest music festival in the Middle East.”
This is the South African DJ Black Coffee playing last night before a crowd of 65,000 during a 3-day extravaganza that is being billed as the largest music festival in the Middle East. Where? In Dubai? In Tel Aviv? No. This was in a place called, let me check my notes, Riyadh. pic.twitter.com/3F4VTlLqGt— Mike (@Doranimated) December 21, 2019
Those who continue to promote MBS as the great Gulf reformer, while downplaying his deepening repression and ignoring the plight of al-Hathloul and other brave Saudi women, are on the wrong side of history. I have no doubt that democracy will come to all corners of the Middle East — whether it is U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, or U.S. enemies like Iran and Syria — and it will come from the bottom up, not the top down.
“The Saudi people owe a huge debt to Loujain,” Sarah Leah Whitson, of Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times earlier this year. The truth is that so do the rest of us. She is a powerful reminder that women and the young have been at the forefront of both reforms and revolutions across the Middle East and beyond. She is also living proof that dictators and despots like MBS might be met with open arms in the corridors of Western power, but their subjects back home won’t always bow their heads.
In October, the Nobel Committee presented the 2019 Peace Prize to controversial Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Earlier this month, Time magazine honored 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg as “Person of the Year.”
So, this week, let me add a name of my own to these end-of-year lists: My person of 2019, my choice for peace and justice campaigner of the year, is Loujain al-Hathloul. And we cannot afford to forget her in 2020.