For nearly two years, I was trapped with my daughter in Saudi Arabia under repressive laws that give preference to men over women, and discriminate on the basis of identity and belief.
As a human rights researcher in Saudi Arabia, I watched my Saudi colleagues and heroes be detained, disappeared, tortured and even killed for expressing their views and supporting human rights.
I will never forget the sense of relief I felt on Dec. 15, 2019, after years of living in fear, when I was seated on a flight back home to Washington state. When the clouds cleared as we were landing to reveal the Space Needle, I finally felt safe, free and equal under the law.
Recently, this sense of safety was shaken, when President Joe Biden confirmed his intention to visit Saudi Arabia from July 13-16. He is expected to meet with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man culpable for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
As so many impacted by Saudi Arabian repression languish, including U.S. citizens and residents of Washington state, I cannot help but feel disappointed and frightened by how this trip may further embolden an already dangerous dictatorship. It sends a tragic message to individuals impacted by Saudi repression here at home.
Since I returned I’ve had the honor to work with families of brave human rights activists and dissidents who are detained or trapped for supporting human rights work, and others who are entrapped in Saudi with their children as I once was. I didn’t realize how prevalent this problem was on our own soil until I returned to the U.S.
I’ve worked on cases of more than 100 American families who have been torn apart by repression in Saudi Arabia. We work with family members who have not heard from their loved ones in years as they have been disappeared, family members who had to learn that their brother, son, father, mother or sisters were tortured and now live with permanent physical deformations or post-traumatic stress disorder due to torture.
We work with families whose loved ones’ prison sentences and travel bans are so long that they live with the possibility of never seeing them again unless something changes. We have American women and children who remain entrapped or kidnapped in the country in situations of abuse, unable to exit due to hyper-patriarchal and archaic male guardianship and kafala laws, which prohibit them from exiting the country without a husband or father’s permission.
We have women who have had their children taken from them to Saudi Arabia, and even one here in Washington state who is under an active travel ban in Saudi Arabia, so she is unable to see her son. Mothers of children in Oregon never got justice for their child’s murder due to Saudi Arabia helping citizens flee ahead of trial.
The repressive tactics of the Saudi government have not been limited to within its own borders, and the impact of Saudi transnational repression within U.S. borders should not be ignored. This was most apparent with the brutal murder of journalist Khashoggi, an American resident. Such egregious crimes by this regime appear to go without punishment.
I hope that a U.S. president’s meeting with Saudi Arabia will result in freedom for the family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who are wrongfully detained — like the well-known cases of Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, Salman al-Odeh, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Mohammed al-Rabiah, Sarah and Omar AlJabri, and others who cannot be publicly named.
I also hope that it would result in the lifting of travel bans barring individuals from exiting Saudi Arabia’s borders and returning home to their families — such as Aziza al-Yousef, Salah al-Haidar, Loujain al-Hathloul, Bader al-Ibrahim and Walid Fitaihi. I also hope that American children who are entrapped there will be able to reunite with their mothers — like Teresa Malof, Madonna Saad and so many others.
I urge the Biden administration to prioritize human rights ahead of this meeting, and to secure the safety and well-being of his own citizens and residents. A good start would be securing freedom for the wrongfully detained and bringing these American families back home.