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  • Yasmin Aliya Khan

The Release of Loujain al-Hathloul




Hello, and welcome to the Global Thread podcast. I’m your host, Yasmin Aliya Khan. Thanks for being here.


For this episode, we’re going to head over to the Middle East, more specifically to Saudi Arabia. Recently, Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, was released from prison… and it’s a big deal. Let’s talk about why.


To do that, we need some background on the US-Saudi relationship. In the past, I’ve covered several separate issues over in the Middle East, and while each one is incredibly nuanced and complex, you start to see some overarching themes that are really always present.


Background


I’ve described it like an onion, or just concentric circles starting from a midpoint and moving outwards. Usually, the innermost point is a small insurrection, protests, or rebel groups challenging the establishment. Sometimes, depending on the conflict, you’ll hear them referred to as “civil wars,” but more often than not, that’s a misnomer. To call them civil wars implies that the conflict exists within the nation itself - its own people fighting its own people - but once you dive into these civil wars, you realize that there are X, Y, and Z extremist groups fighting against so-and-so people… and those extremists were sent over from somewhere else. So the middle circle in the middle east is Iran and Saudi Arabia. Those are two opposing forces, each with their own brand of Islam, and both seeking dominance and influence in the region. Ideologically they’re different, so naturally, they each have different backers. That brings us to the outer circle - the global superpowers. You can generally align the US with Saudi Arabia and Russia with Iran, but of course, there is nuance there, as well. This is a super broad overview just to give you some idea of how many forces are at play over there, and why “Peace in the Middle East” is such a loaded term that the reality of it happening, while not impossible, is unlikely any time soon.


There are two big chambers at the heart of these individual conflicts, the first of which being ideological - religious and cultural influence - the second being capitalistic gains, which can be boiled down to oil. The Middle East is ripe with it and the global superpowers want it. Even with the US claiming energy independence because of offshore drilling and fracking, if we completely pull out of the Middle East, Russia moves in. So without exploring anything too in-depth, you can already see how potential conflicts can arise. On top of everything, there is mass poverty and humanitarian crises all over the region that require foreign aid and funding, and without people on the ground, it can be difficult to get resources to the people who need them.


In regards to the US and Saudi Arabia, specifically, let’s call them frenemies. They need each other, but they don’t necessarily like each other. The relationship involves a lot of looking the other way when one does something the other doesn’t like. If we go back just a few decades, we can see where the contention starts, and why, while it is a contentious relationship, it’s one both governments deem worth preserving.


History


Alright, back during the World Wars, reliable and abundant access to oil became especially critical. The country with the most oil was the most powerful.


But as I mentioned, the second source of conflict is ideological. Though most of the region is Muslim, they’re split into sects, notably between the Sunni Muslims and the Shi’a. With the two major Middle Eastern powers, Iran is Shi’a and Saudi Arabia is Sunni. Most of the Muslim world identifies as Sunni, but Saudi Arabia practices a particularly puritanical and conservative version of it called Wahhabism. Basically, it practices Islam the same way that the Prophet Muhammed did. He lived in the 7th century. So keeping that in mind, it’s important to understand that there are fundamental differences in lifestyles and values between the religiously-led nations in the Middle East and the United States. We’ll get more into that later.


And then we have the Brits! Well, not just them. Lots of foreign intervention. This is a thing that creeps up in various parts of the world throughout history, and seemingly every time, it creates more problems than it fixes, many of which we’re still dealing with today. What happens is foreign governments will come into a region where they don’t understand the people, the culture, the languages, or any of the cultural boundaries that exist within the land, so they just draw arbitrary borders, displace millions of people, and are then confused whenever those same people get mad. If you want a case study on this, just look up the India/Pakistan split in the 1940s. Such a mess.


Now, let’s go back to the 1930s because we’ve got to start somewhere.


As I mentioned, the US needed oil to facilitate its growth into the superpower it is today. So, the US asked Saudi Arabia if we could drill on their land a little bit. They said it was cool, so we drilled, struck oil…


And there was much rejoicing.

On both sides! The Americans were getting rich, and so were the Saudis. American oil companies and ex-pats were moving into Saudi Arabia, setting up shop and bringing their Western ideology to the region, in a way that one could argue was incredibly disrespectful to the nation in which they were siphoning resources from. This is important later. Still, the Saudi government let it happen because they, too, were benefiting from it.


Next thing you know, the US casually sets up a small military base in the region - you know, to protect the oil. Again, the Saudi government lets it happen.


This goes on for a bit until the 1950s, at which point the US overthrows the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran and installs a more American-friendly monarch.


Why are we suddenly talking about Iran now?


Well, around this time, Russia wanted to get in on the oil boom. When they started getting friendly with Iran, the US intervened.


This is what I was talking about when I said it was a bit of a misnomer to categorize many of the conflicts in the Middle East as “civil” wars. There are way too many foreign players involved to blame the general unrest on some angry Syrians or hostile Yemeni or militarized rebels.


Because you have to ask… who militarized them?


Anyway.


Next, the US decided to fund and provide military support to Israel. Israel isn’t super popular amongst its neighbors for reasons I don’t think I need to go into, but the US decides to work with them, anyway. Saudi Arabia wasn’t happy about this, but the monarchs were rollin’ in dough, so for the third time, they let it happen.


Those baby concessions are starting to add up, aren’t they…?


As all this is happening, the Americans in Saudi Arabia are… not popular. If you’ve ever been abroad and run into an American, you know exactly why. Americans are not a subtle people! They didn’t make many efforts to assimilate, or even to be respectful of the culture or religious beliefs in Saudi Arabia. Americans were living abroad in a little American bubble, not realizing - or caring - that resentment toward them was building and building.


One such resentful Saudi? Osama bin Laden. He didn’t like the Americans, he didn’t like how complicit and friendly his government was with them, and he didn’t even like that his own family’s wealth came as a direct result of their business ties to US oil ambitions.


So, with all of that familial wealth, he decided to do something about the Americans, acting outside of his government. He started in Afghanistan, fighting the Russians. When the Americans saw that this rebel “Al Qaeda” militia was fighting the Russians, we decided to help them, sending them weapons and money, with little to no foresight or even a hunch as to how this just might come back to bite us in the you-know-where. But anyway, we won and pushed the Russians out of Afghanistan.


Once that was done, bin Laden and his group, Al Qaeda, returned back to Saudi Arabia. Now, his sights were set on the Americans, the same people who armed and funded him. Talk about biting the hand that feeds.


Meanwhile, over in Iran, they overthrew the pro-US Shah we had given them and installed the more religiously-minded ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini. At this time, anti-American sentiment was prevalent in the nation, and remember - Iran is Shi’a, compared to the Sunni Saudi. The new ayatollah wanted to see more revolutions like the one in Iran in other Muslim nations, particularly in Iraq which sits inconveniently between Iran and Saudi Arabia.


Seeing what’s happening in Iran, Iraq was already growing wary of any kind of rebellious wave coming out of Iran - and for good reason. Iraq has a Shia majority, but it was ruled by a Sunni minority, so… an uprising wasn’t exactly out of the question. Also, Iraq had been getting richer from their own oil stores, which only led them to getting more oil-hungry. They started eying up some of Iran’s oil-rich regions.


This all led to a nearly decade-long conflict between Iraq and Iran that only ended when the UN intervened and proposed a ceasefire.


Alright, at this point, we’re turning the decade, entering into the 1990s, and Iraq wants more oil and more money - so Saddam Hussein - remember that guy? - he takes over Kuwait. Kuwait’s a small country, but it’s located near Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia sees this, gets nervous, and calls on the Americans for help.


The US under the first Bush administration launched an attack against Iraq. We went so hard that we knocked Iraq out of Kuwait, unleashing the full force of the American military on them. To do this, we set up tons of military bases in Saudi Arabia. After the attack… we didn’t take them down. American presence in the region became pretty polarized - some were grateful that we helped them fight off Iraq, but many were resentful that we were still there, not just with new-found entitlement to their resources, but with all of our unapologetic Americanisms, many of which are simply incompatible with Saudi and Muslim beliefs and ways of life.


So, fast forward to the early 2000s. Osama bin Laden’s anti-Western crusade has been gaining support throughout the entirety of the 1990s. Finally, on September 11, 2001, after a decade of attacking U.S. military bases in the Middle East and Africa, he finally attacked us on our home soil. This was the first major attack on U.S. soil from an international power since Pearl Harbor.


It’s important to note here that 15 out of 19 hijackers, not including bin Laden himself, were from Saudi Arabia. Of course, the hijackers were working outside of the government, so we couldn’t exactly blame the Saudi Arabian government for the attacks, right? I mean, countries go to war with other counties, not with outlaw rebel groups, right?


So we went to war with Iraq, instead. To justify this, the W Bush administration capitalized on the collective grief and, frankly, the general ignorance of the American people, garnering support for an illegal war by way of nationalistic, pro-military, pro-freedom, “they hate us cuz they ain’t us”-type rhetoric. Most Americans, at the time, didn’t understand the complexities present in the region - they simply wanted to strike back at *someone* after being struck. Also, most Americans didn’t have a basic understanding of the Middle East, so Iraq seemed as good a target as any for our retaliative response.


This is why you gotta stay in school.


By now you should hopefully realize that they don’t hate us cuz they ain’t us. They hate us cuz we is us and what we is flies in the face of everything they stand for and believe. On top of that, we made ourselves quite at home on their land, inflicting a highly religious society with Americanness, but since everyone was getting rich off of this arrangement, we sort of got away with it. This is also the reason why, even though our attackers came primarily from Saudi Arabia, retaliating against them was never really an option.


And you know the story from there… we went in looking for weapons of mass destruction that Iraq never had, but we did find Saddam Hussein in a spider hole.


Now that you kind of understand the driving forces, ideologies, and motivations governing the region, let’s zoom in on Saudi Arabia and its government. It’s a monarchy, and one that gives Queen Victoria a run for her money as far as… spreading influence.


The Saud family founded modern-day Saudi Arabia in the early 1900s, though their influence in the region goes even further back a few centuries. To this day, thanks to many wives and many children, the Saud family has grown and proliferated. There’s a ton of them.


While the Saud family represents the government leadership in the country, they share influence with another family, the al Ash-Sheikh family. These guys are Wahhabis, so they embody and promote Wahhabism, that particularly conservative and old-school brand of Islam. The two families sort of work together and support each other. The royals let the Wahhabis instill and enforce their religious views on the people, and in return, the Wahhabis basically endorse the royals, offering legitimacy to their claim to the throne.


The current King of Saudi Arabia is King Salman, but the guy we’re going to be focusing on is his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or as he’s known in the west, MBS.


While his dad may be king, MBS is the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, serving as the deputy prime minister and heading up several councils. He was only 31 when he ascended in the ranks after his father decided to remove the previous crown prince from the line of succession. That’s a thing you can do, I guess.


Considering his youth, he was looked at as a potentially more progressive leader of this very, very conservative nation, and in a lot of ways, he’s lived up to that. Sort of. His successes have been marred with some pretty shady stuff.


For one, he arrested hundreds of his cousins, other royals, and detained them not in prisons, but in a Ritz-Carlton.


He also got directly involved in the “civil war” in Yemen, dropping bombs indiscriminately on civilians and plunging Yemen into what is now the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.


When Canada called him out on that, he expelled their ambassador from the capital and froze trade between the two nations.


Oh, and one time the prime minister of Lebanon when to visit him in Saudi, but MBS had him detained. Later, the PM made an announcement that he’d be stepping down from his role, but once he was finally back in Lebanon, he resumed his position. He hasn’t disclosed the conversations that led to his short-lived resignation.


There was a blockade in Qatar, but that’s a whole thing that involves the Trumps and the Kushners.


Then there was the incident with Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and MBS critic who entered the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey, but never came out. The United States under the Trump administration failed to condemn what was clearly a hit job, going against our own commitment to freedom of press. The reluctance to condemn this action was seen as one of those “look the other way” moments in an effort to preserve the relationship, not to mention Trump was never really a champion for journalists.


Some good he did? He loosened the moral and religious restrictions on the people and said the religious police no longer had the right or authority to arrest people. He also said that he wanted to diversify Saudi Arabia’s portfolio a bit, as most of the nation’s wealth comes from oil, the demand for which is declining. Finally, he let women get driver’s licenses - but! he was sure to arrest several women’s rights activists who had fought long and hard for this particular right prior to legalizing it. Many of those women were kept in jail long after legalization.


So that brings us to Hello, and welcome to the Global Thread podcast. I’m your host, Yasmin Aliya Khan. Thanks for being here.


For this episode, we’re going to head over to the Middle East, more specifically to Saudi Arabia. Recently, Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, was released from prison… and it’s a big deal. Let’s talk about why.


To do that, we need some background on the US-Saudi relationship. In the past, I’ve covered several separate issues over in the Middle East, and while each one is incredibly nuanced and complex, you start to see some overarching themes that are really always present.


I’ve described it like an onion, or just concentric circles starting from a midpoint and moving outwards. Usually, the innermost point is a small insurrection, protests, or rebel groups challenging the establishment. Sometimes, depending on the conflict, you’ll hear them referred to as “civil wars,” but more often than not, that’s a misnomer. To call them civil wars implies that the conflict exists within the nation itself - its own people fighting its own people - but once you dive into these civil wars, you realize that there are X, Y, and Z extremist groups fighting against so-and-so people… and those extremists were sent over from somewhere else. So the middle circle in the middle east is Iran and Saudi Arabia. Those are two opposing forces, each with their own brand of Islam, and both seeking dominance and influence in the region. Ideologically they’re different, so naturally, they each have different backers. That brings us to the outer circle - the global superpowers. You can generally align the US with Saudi Arabia and Russia with Iran, but of course, there is nuance there, as well. This is a super broad overview just to give you some idea of how many forces are at play over there, and why “Peace in the Middle East” is such a loaded term that the reality of it happening, while not impossible, is unlikely any time soon.


There are two big chambers at the heart of these individual conflicts, the first of which being ideological - religious and cultural influence - the second being capitalistic gains, which can be boiled down to oil. The Middle East is ripe with it and the global superpowers want it. Even with the US claiming energy independence because of offshore drilling and fracking, if we completely pull out of the Middle East, Russia moves in. So without exploring anything too in-depth, you can already see how potential conflicts can arise. On top of everything, there is mass poverty and humanitarian crises all over the region that require foreign aid and funding, and without people on the ground, it can be difficult to get resources to the people who need them.


In regards to the US and Saudi Arabia, specifically, let’s call them frenemies. They need each other, but they don’t necessarily like each other. The relationship involves a lot of looking the other way when one does something the other doesn’t like. If we go back just a few decades, we can see where the contention starts, and why, while it is a contentious relationship, it’s one both governments deem worth preserving.


Alright, back during the World Wars, reliable and abundant access to oil became especially critical. The country with the most oil was the most powerful.


But as I mentioned, the second source of conflict is ideological. Though most of the region is Muslim, they’re split in sects, notably between the Sunni Muslims and the Shi’a. With the two major Middle Eastern powers, Iran is Shi’a and Saudi Arabia is Sunni. Most of the Muslim world identifies as Sunni, but Saudi Arabia practices a particularly puritanical and conservative version of it called Wahhabism. Basically, it practices Islam the same way that the Prophet Muhammed did. He lived in 7th century. So keeping that in mind, it’s important to understand that there are fundamental differences in lifestyles and values between the religiously-led nations in the Middle East and the United States. We’ll get more into that later.


And then we have the Brits! Well, not just them. Lots of foreign intervention. This is a thing that creeps up in various parts of the world throughout history, and seemingly every time, it creates more problems than it fixes, many of which we’re still dealing with today. What happens is foreign governments will come into a region where they don’t understand the people, the culture, the languages, or any of the cultural boundaries that exist within the land, so they just draw arbitrary borders, displace millions of people, and are then confused whenever those same people get mad. If you want a case study on this, just look up the India/Pakistan split in the 1940s. Such a mess.


Now, let’s go back to the 1930s because we’ve got to start somewhere.


As I mentioned, the US needed oil to facilitate its growth into the superpower it is today. So, the US asked Saudi Arabia if we could drill on their land a little bit. They said it was cool, so we drilled, struck oil…


And there was much rejoicing.


On both sides! The Americans were getting rich, and so were the Saudis. American oil companies and ex-pats were moving into Saudi Arabia, setting up shop and bringing their Western ideology to the region, in a way that one could argue was incredibly disrespectful to the nation in which they were siphoning resources from. This is important later. Still, the Saudi government let it happen because they, too, were benefiting from it.


Next thing you know, the US casually sets up a small military base in the region - you know, to protect the oil. Again, the Saudi government lets it happen.


This goes on for a bit until the 1950s, at which point the US overthrows the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran and installs a more American-friendly monarch.


Why are we suddenly talking about Iran now?


Well, around this time, Russia wanted to get in on the oil boom. When they started getting friendly with Iran, the US intervened.


This is what I was talking about when I said it was a bit of a misnomer to categorize many of the conflicts in the Middle East as “civil” wars. There are way too many foreign players involved to blame the general unrest on some angry Syrians or hostile Yemeni or militarized rebels.


Because you have to ask… who militarized them?


Anyway.


Next, the US decided to fund and provide military support to Israel. Israel isn’t super popular amongst its neighbors for reasons I don’t think I need to go into, but the US decides to work with them, anyway. Saudi Arabia wasn’t happy about this, but the monarchs were rollin’ in dough, so for the third time, they let it happen.


Those baby concessions are starting to add up, aren’t they…?


As all this is happening, the Americans in Saudi Arabia are… not popular. If you’ve ever been abroad and run into an American, you know exactly why. Americans are not a subtle people! They didn’t make many efforts to assimilate, or even to be respectful of the culture or religious beliefs in Saudi Arabia. Americans were living abroad in a little American bubble, not realizing - or caring - that resentment toward them was building and building.


One such resentful Saudi? Osama bin Laden. He didn’t like the Americans, he didn’t like how complicit and friendly his government was with them, and he didn’t even like that his own family’s wealth came as a direct result of their business ties to US oil ambitions.


So, with all of that familial wealth, he decided to do something about the Americans, acting outside of his government. He started in Afghanistan, fighting the Russians. When the Americans saw that this rebel “Al Qaeda” militia was fighting the Russians, we decided to help them, sending them weapons and money, with little to no foresight or even a hunch as to how this just might come back to bite us in the you-know-where. But anyway, we won and pushed the Russians out of Afghanistan.


Once that was done, bin Laden and his group, Al Qaeda, returned back to Saudi Arabia. Now, his sights were set on the Americans, the same people who armed and funded him. Talk about biting the hand that feeds.


Meanwhile, over in Iran, they overthrew the pro-US Shah we had given them and installed the more religiously-minded ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini. At this time, anti-American sentiment was prevalent in the nation, and remember - Iran is Shi’a, compared to the Sunni Saudi. The new ayatollah wanted to see more revolutions like the one in Iran in other Muslim nations, particularly in Iraq which sits inconveniently between Iran and Saudi Arabia.


Seeing what’s happening in Iran, Iraq was already growing wary of any kind of rebellious wave coming out of Iran - and for good reason. Iraq has a Shia majority, but it was ruled by a Sunni minority, so… an uprising wasn’t exactly out of the question. Also, Iraq had been getting richer from their own oil stores, which only led them to getting more oil-hungry. They started eying up some of Iran’s oil-rich regions.


This all led to a nearly decade-long conflict between Iraq and Iran that only ended when the UN intervened and proposed a ceasefire.


Alright, at this point, we’re turning the decade, entering into the 1990s, and Iraq wants more oil and more money - so Saddam Hussein - remember that guy? - he takes over Kuwait. Kuwait’s a small country, but it’s located near Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia sees this, gets nervous, and calls on the Americans for help.


The US under the first Bush administration launched an attack against Iraq. We went so hard that we knocked Iraq out of Kuwait, unleashing the full force of the American military on them. To do this, we set up tons of military bases in Saudi Arabia. After the attack… we didn’t take them down. American presence in the region became pretty polarized - some were grateful that we helped them fight off Iraq, but many were resentful that we were still there, not just with new-found entitlement to their resources, but with all of our unapologetic Americanisms, many of which are simply incompatible with Saudi and Muslim beliefs and ways of life.


So, fast forward to the early 2000s. Osama bin Laden’s anti-Western crusade has been gaining support throughout the entirety of the 1990s. Finally, on September 11, 2001, after a decade of attacking U.S. military bases in the Middle East and Africa, he finally attacked us on our home soil. This was the first major attack on U.S. soil from an international power since Pearl Harbor.


It’s important to note here that 15 out of 19 hijackers, not including bin Laden himself, were from Saudi Arabia. Of course, the hijackers were working outside of the government, so we couldn’t exactly blame the Saudi Arabian government for the attacks, right? I mean, countries go to war with other counties, not with outlaw rebel groups, right?


So we went to war with Iraq, instead. To justify this, the W Bush administration capitalized on the collective grief and, frankly, the general ignorance of the American people, garnering support for an illegal war by way of nationalistic, pro-military, pro-freedom, “they hate us cuz they ain’t us”-type rhetoric. Most Americans, at the time, didn’t understand the complexities present in the region - they simply wanted to strike back at *someone* after being struck. Also, most Americans didn’t have a basic understanding of the Middle East, so Iraq seemed as good a target as any for our retaliative response.


This is why you gotta stay in school.


By now you should hopefully realize that they don’t hate us cuz they ain’t us. They hate us cuz we is us and what we is flies in the face of everything they stand for and believe. On top of that, we made ourselves quite at home on their land, inflicting a highly religious society with Americanness, but since everyone was getting rich off of this arrangement, we sort of got away with it. This is also the reason why, even though our attackers came primarily from Saudi Arabia, retaliating against them was never really an option.


And you know the story from there… we went in looking for weapons of mass destruction that Iraq never had, but we did find Saddam Hussein in a spider hole.


Now that you kind of understand the driving forces, ideologies, and motivations governing the region, let’s zoom in on Saudi Arabia and its government. It’s a monarchy, and one that gives Queen Victoria a run for her money as far as… spreading influence.


The Saud family founded modern-day Saudi Arabia in the early 1900s, though their influence in the region goes even further back a few centuries. To this day, thanks to many wives and many children, the Saud family has grown and proliferated. There’s a ton of them.


While the Saud family represents the government leadership in the country, they share influence with another family, the al Ash-Sheikh family. These guys are Wahhabis, so they embody and promote Wahhabism, that particularly conservative and old-school brand of Islam. The two families sort of work together and support each other. The royals let the Wahhabis instill and enforce their religious views on the people, and in return, the Wahhabis basically endorse the royals, offering legitimacy to their claim to the throne.


The current King of Saudi Arabia is King Salman, but the guy we’re going to be focusing on is his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or as he’s known in the west, MBS.


While his dad may be king, MBS is the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, serving as the deputy prime minister and heading up several councils. He was only 31 when he ascended in the ranks after his father decided to remove the previous crown prince from the line of succession. That’s a thing you can do, I guess.


Considering his youth, he was looked at as a potentially more progressive leader of this very, very conservative nation, and in a lot of ways, he’s lived up to that. Sort of. His successes have been marred with some pretty shady stuff.


For one, he arrested hundreds of his cousins, other royals, and detained them not in prisons, but in a Ritz-Carlton.


He also got directly involved in the “civil war” in Yemen, dropping bombs indiscriminately on civilians and plunging Yemen into what is now the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.


When Canada called him out on that, he expelled their ambassador from the capital and froze trade between the two nations.


Oh, and one time the prime minister of Lebanon when to visit him in Saudi, but MBS had him detained. Later, the PM made an announcement that he’d be stepping down from his role, but once he was finally back in Lebanon, he resumed his position. He hasn’t disclosed the conversations that led to his short-lived resignation.


There was a blockade in Qatar, but that’s a whole thing that involves the Trumps and the Kushners.


Then there was the incident with Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and MBS critic who entered the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey, but never came out. The United States under the Trump administration failed to condemn what was clearly a hit job, going against our own commitment to freedom of press. The reluctance to condemn this action was seen as one of those “look the other way” moments in an effort to preserve the relationship, not to mention Trump was never really a champion for journalists.


Some good he did? He loosened the moral and religious restrictions on the people and said the religious police no longer had the right or authority to arrest people. He also said that he wanted to diversify Saudi Arabia’s portfolio a bit, as most of the nation’s wealth comes from oil, the demand for which is declining. Finally, he let women get driver’s licenses - but! he was sure to arrest several women’s rights activists who had fought long and hard for this particular right prior to legalizing it. Many of those women were kept in jail long after legalization.


So that brings us to Loujain al-Hathloul.


At 31 years old, after being in prison for 1001 days, she’s been released. She and several other activists, while imprisoned, were tortured - they were abused physically, sexually, and even psychologically. Even though the right to drive had been legalized, though, she had technically been arrested on charges of attempting to destabilize the kingdom.


So in March of 2018, she was kidnapped from UAE, returned to Saudi Arabia, briefly jailed, then put under a travel ban. In May, she was again arrested, this time indefinitely. The following month, Saudi women were allowed to drive.


She was finally released following immense international pressure on the Saudi government to do so, especially with damning reports about the jail conditions coming out from organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Hathloul herself had even gone on several hunger strikes in an effort to regain some of her rights while imprisoned. Both Loujain and her sister have publicly thanked President Biden for his help in securing her release. Biden has expressed that he won’t be as tolerant of human rights abuses coming from MBS as Trump was.


Loujain, while no longer jailed, is still under probation and a five-year travel ban. She also faces charges against her that have yet to be dropped. These charges were issued by the Saudi Arabian Special Criminal Court, which has been described as being, quote, “an institution used to silence dissent and notorious for issuing lengthy prison sentences following seriously flawed trials." Charges against her include activism against male-guardianship laws, contacting foreign press and human rights groups, and applying for a job at the UN. Those hardly sound like crimes, but when you give a trying-to-take-down-the-kingdom spin, her activism suddenly becomes terrorism.


Going forward, Loujain and her family have quite a battle ahead of them. They refuse to say she’s “free” because she is still far from it. She’s got a fight ahead of her, especially as her family is now demanding justice for the torture she endured.


The U.S.-Saudi relationship will be an interesting one to watch, as well. There is still a mountain of conflicts in the Middle East, each one feeding into another. There’s still a ton of skepticism and distrust toward western nations, particularly the United States, and we’ve got a brand new administration over here. There are still humanitarian crises that need to be addressed, sometimes separately from political negotiations. And there’s still the issue of oil and general fossil fuel dependency, and how the inevitable transition away from oil will impact global relations. The Biden administration, along with other global leaders, will need to determine how they want to approach the myriad of problems they’re faced with, but the U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has said, quote, “In every relationship, whether it is one with our closest allies, our closest partners, and with our closest security partners, we will never check our values, we will never check our principles at the door.”


Here’s to that.


That’s it for this episode! I hope this has helped you enough to where when you hear updates about this story in the news, you’ll at least know who and what they’re talking about. If you’d like to read a transcript of this episode, or if you’d like to support this podcast, you can do so at globalthread.org. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk to y’all soon!

. At 31 years old, after being in prison for 1001 days, she’s been released. She and several other activists, while imprisoned, were tortured - they were abused physically, sexually, and even psychologically. Even though the right to drive had been legalized, though, she had technically been arrested on charges of attempting to destabilize the kingdom.


So in March of 2018, she was kidnapped from UAE, returned to Saudi Arabia, briefly jailed, then put under a travel ban. In May, she was again arrested, this time indefinitely. The following month, Saudi women were allowed to drive.


She was finally released following immense international pressure on the Saudi government to do so, especially with damning reports about the jail conditions coming out from organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Hathloul herself had even gone on several hunger strikes in an effort to regain some of her rights while imprisoned. Both Loujain and her sister have publicly thanked President Biden for his help in securing her release. Biden has expressed that he won’t be as tolerant of human rights abuses coming from MBS as Trump was.


Loujain, while no longer jailed, is still under probation and a five-year travel ban. She also faces charges against her that have yet to be dropped. These charges were issued by the Saudi Arabian Special Criminal Court, which has been described as being, quote, “an institution used to silence dissent and notorious for issuing lengthy prison sentences following seriously flawed trials." Charges against her include activism against male-guardianship laws, contacting foreign press and human rights groups, and applying for a job at the UN. Those hardly sound like crimes, but when you give a trying-to-take-down-the-kingdom spin, her activism suddenly becomes terrorism.


Going forward, Loujain and her family have quite a battle ahead of them. They refuse to say she’s “free” because she is still far from it. She’s got a fight ahead of her, especially as her family is now demanding justice for the torture she endured.


The U.S.-Saudi relationship will be an interesting one to watch, as well. There is still a mountain of conflicts in the Middle East, each one feeding into another. There’s still a ton of skepticism and distrust toward western nations, particularly the United States, and we’ve got a brand new administration over here. There are still humanitarian crises that need to be addressed, sometimes separately from political negotiations. And there’s still the issue of oil and general fossil fuel dependency, and how the inevitable transition away from oil will impact global relations. The Biden administration, along with other global leaders, will need to determine how they want to approach the myriad of problems they’re faced with, but the U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has said, quote, “In every relationship, whether it is one with our closest allies, our closest partners, and with our closest security partners, we will never check our values, we will never check our principles at the door.”


Here’s to that.


That’s it for this episode! I hope this has helped you enough to where when you hear updates about this story in the news, you’ll at least know who and what they’re talking about. If you’d like to read a transcript of this episode, or if you’d like to support this podcast, you can do so at globalthread.org. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk to y’all soon!