When President Joe Biden meets with Saudi leaders this weekend, several American families are hoping he’ll use the opportunity to speak up for their loved ones who are barred from leaving the kingdom.
Biden arrived in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah on Friday for the final leg of a regional tour that included stops in Israel and the West Bank. In underscoring the necessity of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia — a country he once vowed to shun for its human rights record — the White House has pointed to the fact that 70,000 Americans live and work there.
At least several of them have no choice.
“If Biden gets on the plane from Saudi Arabia without the Americans on there with him, it’s unacceptable,” said Sarah al-Haidar, a daycare teacher in northern Virginia.
Her brother Salah al-Haidar is prohibited from leaving Saudi Arabia under the terms of his provisional release from prison. Her mother Aziza al-Yousef, a women’s rights activist and US resident prior to her arrest, is also banned from travel abroad.
They are among a handful of high-profile former detainees whose movement is restricted under travel bans that human rights groups say are part of a broader Saudi government campaign to silence dissent both at home and abroad.
The restrictions on travel have torn apart families. After spending years speaking out against her mother and brother's imprisonment, Sarah al-Haidar believes it would be unsafe to visit them in the kingdom.
“I know that if I go back to Saudi, I will be dragged off the airplane in handcuffs,” she said. “That puts me in a situation where I could never go home.”
In what was seen as a gesture of goodwill to the new Biden administration, Saudi Arabia provisionally released al-Haidar, a journalist, and Bader al-Ibrahim, an epidemiologist and writer, in February 2021. Both men are dual US-Saudi citizens who were jailed on terrorism-related charges that their families and rights groups said were baseless.
Their release was welcomed by the Biden administration but human rights advocates pointed out that the former detainees are still vulnerable to abuse and re-arrest.
“They’re neither free nor safe,” said Allison McManus, research director at the Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based advocacy group. “It’s just a way to maintain this incredibly oppressive and abusive situation while giving an image of some kind of progress.”
By the Freedom Initiative’s count, at least 89 US persons or their family members were detained, disappeared or subject to Saudi travel bans at some point in 2021.
They include Walid Fitaihi, a Saudi-American physician arrested without charge as part of the Saudi government’s anti-corruption purge in November 2017 that saw hundreds of businessmen, Saudi royals and other perceived government critics detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.
A 71-year-old US citizen whose family has not gone public remains unjustly detained, according to the Freedom Initiative, which reports that his health has significantly deteriorated during his two-year imprisonment.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not return a request for comment.
Democratic lawmakers, human rights groups and the families themselves have called on the president to prioritize these cases in his meetings with Saudi leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“We have watched as your administration has increasingly warmed to a reset of relations with regional leaders, despite ongoing rights abuses,” read a letter delivered to Biden from families of Egyptian and Saudi dissidents. “We worry that these warmer relations will only eclipse the plight of our loved ones.”
Critics see Biden’s outreach to Saudi Arabia as a betrayal of his campaign promise to overhaul US-Saudi relations as part of a foreign policy centered on human rights. But Biden says the goal was always to “reorient, not rupture” ties with the longtime strategic partner.
In a Washington Post op-ed published last weekend, Biden made reference to the Americans trapped in Saudi Arabia and said he “will continue to push for restrictions on their travel to be lifted.”
It could be decades before Areej al-Sadhan, a dual Saudi-US citizen living in California, sees her brother Abdulrahman al-Sadhan. Forcibly disappeared in March 2018, the humanitarian aid worker was among scores of Saudi critics swept up in the crown prince’s crackdown.
In April 2021, Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Sadhan to 20 years in prison, followed by a 20-year travel ban, for allegedly running an anonymous Twitter account that mocked the Saudi government.
Areej al-Sadhan urged Biden to “use this opportunity to demand they free my brother.”
“My mom will be deprived of seeing her son forever under those circumstances,” she said. “It’s basically a life sentence not just for him, but for us."