Saudi prince’s strategy on women’s rights is doomed to fail

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Saudi Arabia won points by easing some of its restrictions on women, but it’s now at risk of losing them, and then some, after imprisoning the very woman whose activism led to the rollbacks.

Last week, an anti-terror court slapped Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the kingdom’s most prominent women’s rights activists, with nearly six years of prison time for endangering national security and seeking to change the country’s political system.

Her real offense was her agitation itself — in particular, talking to foreign journalists and embassies about women’s rights. She had famously called for a ban on women driving to be lifted; in 2018, it was.

Al-Hathloul “was charged, tried and convicted using counter-terrorism laws,” her sister, Lina al-Hathloul, points out. “My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist. To be sentenced for her activism for the very reforms that MBS [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman] and the Saudi kingdom so proudly tout is the ultimate hypocrisy.”

Loujain al-Hathloul has been in pre-trial detention since 2018, where she’s endured several stretches of solitary confinement and, she alleges, has been tortured and sexually assaulted, along with other female activists.

Her case points up the tightrope MBS is trying to walk: He’s aiming to appease activists and the West by easing some of the kingdom’s repressive laws while also catering to supporters of those laws and punishing the activists. That’s bound to fail, creating martyrs out of some activists — ratcheting up pressure for more change — even as limited reforms infuriate the old guard.

The prince needs to figure out a better way to shepherd his nation into the 21st century. And do it quickly: President-elect Joe Biden has vowed not to give Saudi Arabia “a blank check” on its “disastrous” policies, including targeting female activists. Best for US-Saudi relations, and for Saudi women, if MBS moves fast.

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